An elegiac, much-lauded film, in which love, family, music, faith and football (plus a little eccentricity) bind the town of Timbuktu, despite the controlling, uncompromising presence of the Jihadists.
Abderrahmane Sissako directs and writes with a poet’s sensibility, seeking emotional truth over sensational story. Avoiding long narrative lines, he layers shorter events in the town-people’s lives with recurring character studies, and images so affecting, they are fixed in the mind like a strong song.
There’s the shakedown following the death of a cow belonging to the charismatic herder Kidane (a tender performance from Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino). Alongside is the punishment of the boy who breaks the no-football rule (Timbuktu’s response is to play matches with an imaginary ball), and the woman who refuses to wear gloves to sell fish. Then there’s the brutal stoning of two unmarried lovers …
The desert is photographed as far-reaching and majestic: an uncontrollable sun. It forms as much of the characters’ consciousness as their families, faith and music. Equally compelling is the image of the town’s eccentric who walks, unveiled and colourful, with clothes, trailing like peacock feathers behind her. Her face often looks up to the sky; she is contained in her own world that protects her, in a certain way, from the Islamic State police.
Timbuktu should make heavy viewing. There are several violent, deeply disturbing scenes, but elsewhere Sissako assures a life-affirming optimism. The eccentric is a joyful celebration of difference, and so gentle and serene are the conversations between Kidane and Satima (Toulu Kiki), it is difficult to think of a more touching on-screen portrait of marriage.
Sissako presents these scenes as gifts, never forcing us to unwrap them. Instead he allows us to freely respond and draw our own conclusions. It’s a film-making aesthetic that’s a far-cry from the ideology dominating the town.
The intruders are presented, alongside their monstrous acts, with tiny glimpses of humanity. We see occasional warmth in their eyes, and it is in these moments that Sissako suggests, gently, that compassion, however small, exists in everyone, and can never totally be destroyed by adherence to loveless fanaticism.
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako 2014