BEYOND TIMBUKTU is a feature-length documentary film whose purpose is to reveal the story of a rich and an exquisite West African literary culture that remains largely unknown in the West and to analytically investigate the myth and often-shoddy misinterpretation of the history of the place we call Timbuktu. In the Western mind, Timbuktu is not so much an actual place but an idea, a name that signifies the unreachable, a distant location at the very edges of the map beyond civilization, and a place from which only few people could possibly return. In this case, the idiom appropriates the city as something of a threat. Beyond this view of the place, little is known or understood about Timbuktu and, if asked, most Americans would likely claim it does not really exist.
Timbuktu is a real living city located in the northernmost center of the West African country, Mali, between the river Niger and Sahara desert. Settlements in the area began as a trading post for salt, and then rapidly developed into a commercial emporium for the Trans-Saharan camel caravans, a civilizational magnet and center for Islamic scholarship. I became interested in making this film about Timbuktu for several reasons. My grandmother came from Mali, so I have a personal interest in learning about the region where I have family ties. I also embarked upon the project because of a growing concern for cultural misunderstandings and widespread of ignorance of Timbuktu, and of Africa in general. For instance, a remark British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper made in 1963, resonates: “Perhaps in the future,” Professor Trevor-Roper told his audience, “there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
For my purposes, the importance of Timbuktu in African history lies in its greatest and vital assets: hundreds of thousands of literary manuscripts, cultural lore and Muslim knowledge that is yet to be fully tapped. Likewise, the place of Timbuktu in the history of Islamic scholarship goes back almost 1,000 years; a time when Arabic and Islam first penetrated the West African literary region. The camel caravan traders were Muslims and they brought their libraries with them. This region’s history goes back to a point, some 500 to 600 years ago, when scholarship in Timbuktu became so central that even those in Morocco, Egypt and other places in the center of the Muslim world would come to Timbuktu in order to study. Timbuktu was a literary center removed from the destructive modern world beyond.
Today, however, the city of 54,453 people (2009 census), is threatened by the very desert that once allowed it to flourish. The Sahara now delivers heaps of sand everywhere. Residents, livestock and dust devils patrol a seemingly desolate landscape and scores of dunes stand between the vacant spaces as if set by ghosts. Ever taunted by the promise of rain, they wait for the cue to come. The primary source of water comes from the river Niger through underground aquifers. As for the books and manuscripts (recently uncovered), fire, theft, and termites have taken a toll. Nothing else comes and nothing else remains of anything of significance, except the grand old Mosque (Sankoré) that once housed the Timbuktu University. It still stands its ground as a reminder of Timbuktu’s defiant past.
This movie is about the men and women who love books—scholars of all ages, who seek knowledge and wisdom through learning. It is about a city, Timbuktu, which has built its identity and character around a culture of scholarship: a deeply rooted ancient Islamic tradition of erudition, faith, and tolerance; a world largely unknown to most Westerners.
In January, 2012, I traveled to Mali and lived in Timbuktu for two months in order to complete research and shoot principal photography. I had the opportunity to engage with the people, understand their way of life, their creativity as well as observe their sense of direction. It was my first time in Mali, and it was both captivating and informative. Since that trip, I find myself longing to return and learn more—not only as an African in search of understanding my history, but to prove that the conventional worldly view of Africa as a purely “oral continent” is incorrect.
Upon arrival in Timbuktu, however, I realized that I did not want to make a film about the town the way a journalist would. Frankly, I don’t think that one can truly capture its essence in any kind of reportorial journalistic way. So I try to poeticize it, because Timbuktu is a place that has a certain poetic quality, even though it might be a stark quality. So, in making this film, I aim to convey its essence by meshing together its cultural narratives and aesthetic to get beyond a mere physical description or simple historical perspective of the place. Instead, to recreate on film a kind of Timbuktu reality: both a real living city and also a place of fantasy. visit www.talkingdrumproductions.com.