Timbuktu is a name that conjures up exotic adventure; an important trading post for the Mali empire, in its Golden Age it was a university center of Islamic learning. But after watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s devastating drama, it’s likely to become a synonym for the worst excesses of Islamic fundamentalism, which are mercilessly depicted in all their everyday cruelty, horror and stupidity. Despite some narrative weaknesses that dilute the overall emotional impact, Timbuktu is a hard film to forget and once again brings Sissako to the center stage of African cinema. It is also an eye-opener on the methodical spread of Jihadist influence in the sub-Sahara in spite of popular resistance.
The film’s methods are boldly unorthodox and its constantly alternating moods and shifts in tone from drama to humor, joy to tragedy can be disconcerting. It’s not a film for all audiences, but despite its eccentricities it is always watchable, thanks to strongly drawn characters and the soul-stirring poetry of its imagery.
As the film opens, the fundamentalists hold control of Timbuktu, presented not as a city (the film was shot in Mauritania) but as bits and pieces of solid red mud walls rising into a blue sky. Outside the town lies the vastness of the desert. Though many of their neighbors have fled, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed ) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) live in a traditional open tent with their 12-year-old daughter Toya. The fourth member of the family is Issa, an orphaned boy who tends Kidane’s small herd of eight cattle.
In town the Islamists run around with loudspeakers announcing their latest prohibitions in the name of Allah: music, soccer and smoking are banned outright, and women have to wear socks and gloves in the sweltering heat. A later edict ridiculously bans doing “any old thing in a public place.” Underlining the foreignness of these new impositions is the fact that the “Jihadists” don’t speak the local lingo and have to be translated from Arabic into French and English to even make themselves understood. Making them even more unpopular with the locals (who are shown as normal, God-fearing, life-loving Muslims) are the automatic weapons that they look for any excuse to use. When they arrogantly barge into a mosque full of men in prayer, they’re told off by the local imam. But the guns they tote talk with a loud voice and allow them to impose the harshest Shariah laws in kangaroo courts.
Their influence reaches even into the desert, where Kidane and Satima enjoy a little more freedom. Satima and Toya don’t cover their heads, for instance, and Kidane plays his guitar at night. In town such behavior leads to instant arrest and trial, resulting in public lashing or even stoning to death, glimpsed in a brief but horrifying scene. The delicate situation finally explodes over a banal quarrel between Kidane and a local fisherman when the family’s cattle invade his fishing nets. An elemental crime filmed in long shot lights the fuse for tragedy and delivers the characters to their fate in an unexpected finale.
None of this would be so extraordinary had Sissako not set the story in a highly convincing natural world bathed in sunlight and swept by sand. The women’s long flowing dresses add notes of bright color to the archaic scene, while cell phones, motorbikes and trucks remind us what century it is. But the horrors perpetrated by the so-called Jihadists are clearly aimed at casting the populace into the Dark Ages.
In contrast to their ideological cruelty, Sissako casts the human warmth of everyday citizens, like a fishmonger in the market who refuses point blank to wear gloves, and a young woman who sings through her tears as she is being lashed (Malian actress and composer Fatoumata Diawara.) And he chooses a girl who is anything but resigned to her fate, the daughter Toya played with natural maturity by child actress Layla Walet Mohamed, as the face of Africa’s future.
Though quite a different animal from the director’s last film Bamako (The Court), which used a mock public trial to educate audiences about African debt and economics, this film also reaches for moments of humor to lighten the drama. For example, a clownish Jihadist from Libya who sets himself up as a kingpin needs an interpreter to communicate the simplest things. Hypocritically, he smokes in secret and casts a lustful eye on Satima. There is also a delightful madwoman, played with regal aplomb by Haitian actress and dancer Kettly Noel, who to the audience’s delight liquidates the baddies with a single choice word and a small voodoo doll.
A great help is the palpably sensuous cinematography by Sofian El Fani who follows his fine work on Blue Is the Warmest Color with an open-air feast of sunlight and space. The musical selection from Amine Bouhafa is subtle and persuasive.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2014
Production companies: Les Films du Worso, Dune Vision in association with Arches Films, Arte France Cinema, Orange Studio
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Fatoumata Diawara, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noel, Mehdi AG Mohamed, Layla Walet Mohamed, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Salem Dendou
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Screenwriters: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Abderrahmane Sissako
Executive producers: Kessen Tall
Director of photography: Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Sebastien Birchler
Costumes: Ami Sow
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Sales Agent: Le Pacte
No rating, 97 minutes.