Timbuktu (2014) review

TIMBUKTU, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abel Jafri, 2014.

TIMBUKTU, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abel Jafri, 2014.

“Where is God in all of this?” asks the local imam during a critical scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. A horde of radical Islamists have charged into a mosque during prayer – not only wearing shoes, but toting guns – and without ever raising his voice the imam makes it clear that they are not welcome. Sissako’s film is full of emblematic scenes like this, beautifully constructed and weighted with irony. In fact, it’s largely this – tragedy levelled with the director’s wry, reserved gaze – that saves the film from the conventional melodrama it very easily could have become. Of course, the imam’s question goes unanswered, but this early moment frames all that unfolds next: the fatal ramifications of a nation violated.

When the Mali city first comes under occupation by religious extremists intent on jihad, the inhabitants meet their presence with bold contempt. Understandably so; these men are outsiders, awkward and immature, and crucially unable to communicate with the people they now police (a translator must accompany them through every interaction).  What’s more, their regulations grow more and more unreasonable by the day. A ban on music and sports and smoking soon graduates to a ban on “any old thing.” At first their hypocrisy and incompetence is amusing. In one scene, the jihadis hear music and investigate only to find that the perpetrators are singing in worship. Stumped, they wonder aloud, “Shall we arrest them?”

But the amusement does not last long. A presumably adulterous couple is buried up to their necks and stoned to death, while another woman (Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara who sings the end credits song “Timbuktu Fasso”) is sentenced to a public whipping of 80 lashes – 40 for singing and another 40 for being alone with men who are not related to her.  

TIMBUKTU, a female fishmonger resists policing, 2014.

TIMBUKTU, a female fishmonger resists policing, 2014.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, kindly cattle herder Kidane (a measured and heartbreaking performance from newcomer Ibrahim Ahmed) lives peacefully with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), generally undisturbed by the draconian measures of the jihadis. But no one is to escape their infringement unscathed. This is not so much Sissako’s design as it is nature’s. These men are not unsympathetic; to the contrary, the horror of it all is how human their fear and insecurity and intolerance is. But unchecked authority in such hands is never a good thing.

Sissako’s grim, but visually stunning tale of one city’s trauma comes at an important time politically. Timbuktu is an explicit indictment, not of Islam but of repression. Unsurprisingly, those most vulnerable to this theocratic vigilance are women. Satima delivers perhaps the film’s most powerful line to the leader of the jihadis, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), who insists she cover her hair – while she’s washing it, it should be noted – when she replies that he should not look at what he doesn’t want to see. This misogyny, exacerbated by sexual frustration proves, predictably, to have devastating consequences. One man asks a wizened mother for her daughter in marriage, but when the mother refuses, he takes the girl anyway. This theme gives way to several winking, illustrative images: perhaps the most overt, a shot of a man firing into the distance where two large mounds rise, separated by a carefully positioned patch of grass. 

Arguably the most brilliant scene to emerge from  Timbuktu is the pantomimed football scene where a group of boys, forbidden to play sports, enact a match with an imaginary ball. Beautifully choreographed and filmed with a graceful eye, there’s a palpable sense of triumph about the sequence, particularly after a pair of suspicious jihadis ride through on a motorbike only to leave with no obvious cause to arrest the group.

These moments of levity feel necessary to a film as bleak as Timbuktu often gets, and Sissako masters this tonal balance effortlessly. These little victories won by a stifled people come as a welcome reprieve, and their unrewarded resilience adds yet another layer of tragedy. It’s unfair, but like the climactic shot of Toya racing toward the screen –  echoing the hunted gazelle from the film’s opening sequence – they carry on.

5/5 *