The first thing that struck me was the choice of Middle Eastern music for the opening scenes. Is the producer trying to paint the picture Mali is similar to the Middle East? It appeared to me right away that this seemed a sensationalized account to help direct the French view on policy towards Mali. It seems almost a war propaganda, yet currently there is no war being waged by the rebels, they are ‘occupying’ the north, but there is not daily gunfire.
The trajectory of this report is curious in its own right, as it was in the making for some time. The cameramen are originally ‘smuggled’ into Mali by the MNLA (then in power) through the Sahara. The French view on the MNLA takeover was at that time passive, and there were sentiments of ‘vive la revolution’ amongst some unfamiliar with the complete nature of the rebel Tuareg cause. However, the situation in the north took an unexpected turn, when Islamists fought their once-allies, and partner freedom fighters, out of power. At this time the cameramen retreat from the north and the footage is in the domain of handheld local bootlegs. I find the footage in Timbuctou curious where the Islamists are speaking in Arabic about the crimes a young couple committed, to an audience of locals who don’t speak Arabic (The film doesn’t point out this communication divide, as most of the Islamists originally came from Algeria, Mauritania, Tunis). The mayor of Timbuctou expresses his frustrations that Ansar Dine, Boko Haram, MUJAO, each fraction group makes their own law. Shots of the destruction of Timbuctou are spliced also with footage recovered from a captured Mauritanian AQIM member. He had taken footage of the AQIM members frolicking in their trainings somewhere mid-Sahara, and this footage was later used to identify leaders such as Ould Hamaha.
The investigation then pushes over to Niger, to the largest Uranium operation in Africa, run by the French company AREVA. The majority of France’s energy comes from this one mine, and AREVEA has invested billions in its Niger operations (also Niger’s largest employers). Fifty years ago Arlit was a small village, and now it has mushroomed into a town of 100,000 because of the mine. The Uranium operation is gargantuan, and seems unproportionate for a nation so underdeveloped to have such a monumental operation in the middle of the desert (like an image from a Bond movie, the mammoth secret Uranium operations in the middle of the Sahara, responsible for most of France’s power). However, the disparities have not gone unnoticed. The kidnapping of 7 employees by rebels in 2010 has put AREVA security on full alert, and interactions between the French and locals has been limited to only those who work in the mine. Despite these setbacks, AREVA is holding firm in the area and has recently found a second site of Uranium deposits in Imouraren, which they predict will double the Uranium production capacity in Niger. Meanwhile, four hostages are still at large in the Sahara and their families and the “n’oblier pas” (do not forget) hostage support group have been actively trying to persuade the French government to negotiate their return. The rebels are asking $90 million.
The investigative report returns back to Mali to check in with the rebel situation, which has gone from bad to worse. They visit a hospital in the north to interview a 25yr old Songhai man who was accused of robbery and was punished according to the interpretation of Sharia. He said Ansar Dine put him in the hospital after they amputated his right hand, promised him food and medical assistance till he was healed, and offered him $80 as compensation for his hand (he refused the $80).
The focus of the interviews then shifts to the capital where many have fled and the cameramen are still safe to travel to and hear their story firsthand. We hear the testimony of a young woman who was the victim of rape by a non-Malian rebel fighter. She felt there was no law to defend her in Gao, and is now at the mercy of the kindness of her neighbors in Bamako. She goes to school if she has the transportation fare, if not she stays at home and relies on the support of god.
The interviewer also meets with a professor from Gao who fled with his family. Modibo felt unsafe, but, the interviewer fails to differentiate if they left because of the MNLA or because of Ansar Dine (MNLA were forcing Bambara people to leave at that time. The MNLA initially helped with some of the footage, so there seems to be a bias towards their faults).
The interviewer also meets with Malik from Gao who was beaten for speaking up against the first applications of Sharia in Gao. He too fled for Bamako and is actively working to bring awareness to the northern situation. Specifically, he says the rebels are paying 300,000-400,000cfa a month to soldiers they can recruit to join their ranks (to put that in perspective, we would earn around 150,000cfa every two months in Peace Corps). For those who are desperate for solutions because of their economic exclusion from the rest of the country, this offer could be too tempting to turn down, especially when the Malian government has been offering no support during their time of crisis.
The final meeting the interviewer conducts is with musician Baba Sala, the darling of Gao. He sings the final words of encouragement to uplift the otherwise bleak report: “ you cannot divide Mali.” If only more people heard his message.