Not far from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists determined to control their faith. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family are being spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu. But their destiny changes abruptly.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s passionate and visually beautiful film Timbuktu is a cry from the heart – with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such grace and such care. It is a portrait of the country of his childhood, the west African state of Mali, and in particular the city of Timbuktu, whose rich and humane traditions are being trampled, as Sissako sees it, by fanatical jihadis, often from outside the country. The story revolves around the death of a cow, affectionately named “GPS” – an appropriate symbol for a country that has lost its way.
These Islamist zealots are banning innocent pleasures such as music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stonings for adultery. The new puritans appal the local imam, who has long upheld the existing traditions of a benevolent and tolerant Islam; they march into the mosque carrying arms. Besides being addicted to cruelty and bullying, these men are enslaved to their modern devices – mobile phones, cars, video-cameras (for uploading jihadi videos to the internet) and, of course, weapons. Timbuktu is no longer tombouctou la mysterieuse, the magical place of legend, but a harsh, grim, unforgiving place of bigotry and fear.
Sissako creates an interrelated series of characters and tableaux giving us scenes from the life of a traumatised nation, historically torn apart and prone to failures in communication between its three languages: Touareg, Arabic and French. At the centre of this is the tragic story of one family: a herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter. Kidane angrily confronts a fisherman who has killed his cow, with tragic results. Mali’s new theocratic state must now rule on something that has nothing to do with infringements of its own proliferating religious laws – and its crass insensitivity and immaturity as a system of government is horribly exposed.
There are some brilliant visual moments: the panoramic vision of the river in which Kidane and the fisherman stagger apart, at different ends of the screen, is superb, composed with a panache that David Lean might have admired. When a jihadi comes close to admitting he is infatuated with Satima, Sissako shows us the undulating dunes with a strategically placed patch of scrub. It is a sudden, Freudian vision of a woman’s naked body, which is then made the subject of a bizarre, misogynist attack.
Elsewhere, young men carry on playing football after football has been banned by miming the game. They rush around the field with an invisible football, earnestly playing a match by imagining where the ball should be. It is a funny, sly, heartbreaking scene, reminiscent of anti-Soviet satire. In another scene, a young man is being coached on how to describe his religious conversion for a video (for an awful moment, it looks as if it might be a suicide-bomber “martyrdom” video). The boy talks about how he used to love rap music, but no longer. Yet in the face of the hectoring and maladroit direction, the boy lowers his head: he finds he cannot mouth these dogmatic platitudes.
In many ways, Sissako’s portrait of Mali is comparable to Ibrahim El-Batout’s portrait of Egypt and the Tahrir Square protests in his film Winter of Discontent. It is built up with enormous emotion, teetering between hope and despair.
Timbuktu, by the Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako, is a wrenching tragic fable, Aesop-like in its moral clarity, about all the injustices Sharia law can wreak. It’s also gorgeous. Few tracts about religious intolerance have ever been this alive to the beauty in their world – the play of late-evening sunlight across a lake, the nimble joy of a football game the authorities want banned.
In the dunes outside Timbuktu, a cattle farmer called Kidane, played with sad nobility by Ibrahim Ahmed, has built a life with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), their 12-year-old daughter, and a young shepherd boy. Kidane plucks a guitar at night, and their tent feels like a sacred haven under the stars.
Sissako’s vision is so offhandedly seductive, it’s a while before you realise what a threat is gathering, and from where. It comes from the armed jihadis prowling the streets on motorbikes, issuing edicts about the forbidden pleasures of cigarette smoking, music, football. They enter a mosque, fully armed, and expect the very term jihad to act as some kind of holy password.
Sissako keeps melodrama at bay using the skittish, fragmentary rhythms he’s chosen. Minor characters drift in and out without announcing themselves as minor. There’s a town witch, trailing a wild multi-coloured ensemble behind her, and cackling as if the hen she’s carrying were capable of ventriloquism. Jihadi recruits debate the relative merits of Zidane and Messi. There are driving lessons in the desert, and a camcorder monologue where one young guy, his eyes darting and awkward, talks about turning his back on rap music and a life of sin.
Then something irreversible happens. One of Kidane’s cows stumbles into the nets of Amadou, a temperamental fisherman, and the latter spears it to death. If this sequence is faked, it’s faked astonishingly. The two men face off on the lake, and Sissako treats us to a long, breathtaking widescreen vista, from way back, of Kidane stumbling his way to the other side after a gun has gone off.
Sissako says he was inspired, if that’s the word, by the horrifying public stoning in 2012 of an unmarried couple in the town of Aguelhok. His film shows merely a glimpse of a stoning, for a fraction of a second, but it’s enough – the point is made earlier and more figuratively, with pot-shots at a group of fragile tribal statues, standing in the sand, their faces and limbs splintered into shards.
This is in no way the remorselessly grim film its subject matter might lead you to expect – it’s full of life, irony, poetry and bitter unfairness. It demands respect, but it also earns it.
JAN. 27, 2015
This month, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” an official selection in Cannes last year and a current nominee for the best foreign-language film Oscar, was caught up in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, when the mayor of a Paris suburb briefly succeeded in banning it from a local cinema. Coming amid an outpouring of public and official support for freedom of speech, this act of censorship was both dismaying and ridiculous.
The authority of the jihadists in “Timbuktu” is cruel, but it is also absurd. Mr. Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and whose films have mainly been set, like this one, in Mali, examines the varieties of this absurdity with an eye that is calm, compassionate and remorseless. The most obvious vice exhibited by members of the militia controlling the desert city of Timbuktu in the name of Allah is hypocrisy.
Their failures to live up to their own rigid notions of Shariah law are evidence of their humanity. Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), one of the leaders, sneaks off behind a dune to smoke a cigarette, an activity he has forbidden in the city. “Everyone knows you smoke,” says his young driver, who has been trying to teach his boss to drive a stick shift. In the midst of flirting with the wife of a herdsman, Abdelkrim scolds her for immodestly leaving her hair uncovered. He also experiences a frustration common to many filmmakers when he tries to direct a video featuring a young fighter whose diffident, hip-hop-inflected performance style doesn’t quite strike the right tone. “We’re not doing, ‘Yo, man,’ ” says the would-be auteur, “we’re doing religion.”
But the way he and his comrades do it is hardly a laughing matter. In the course of the film, a couple accused of adultery are stoned to death. Members of the Islamic Police storm a house where music is being played, and one of the musicians (a woman, of course) is publicly whipped for the crime. When a jihadist’s offer of marriage is refused, he vows to take his would-be bride by force. When he does, the commanders inform the local imam that their interpretation of Muslim law is, by definition, the correct one. Might makes right, and the righteousness of the strong is an excuse for all kinds of indulgence.
Collectively, these warriors in the name of Allah are a bunch of bullies. They are indifferent to local customs and ignorant of many of the languages spoken by residents of Timbuktu, an ancient trading hub known for its cosmopolitanism. Individually, the fighters are sometimes sadistic, sometimes weak, sometimes kind and frequently confused.
Showing them this way is not a matter of “humanizing” fanaticism, which is the kind of accusation that is often unthinkingly leveled at stories that veer away from presenting political conflict as a simple fight between good and evil. How could the bad guys be anything other than human? Their folly lies in the belief that they can transcend that condition and terrorize their fellow Muslims into holiness. They may be sincere in their devotion to their God and his prophet, but they are still jerks. “Timbuktu” is an act of resistance and revenge because it asserts the power of secularism not as an ideology but rather as a stubborn fact of life.
In that way, it is un peu Charlie Hebdo, though Mr. Sissako’s sensibility is gentler, his satirical impulse less scabrous and his imagination more expansive than that shared by most of the magazine’s cartoonists. There is a strong current of anger and disgust running through his film, which was inspired by the Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other parts of northern Mali in 2012. With some adjustments, it could have been set in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or Pakistan. But the glory of “Timbuktu” lies in its devotion to local knowledge, in the way it allows its gaze to wander away from violence toward images of beauty and grace.
Mr. Sissako’s previous feature, “Bamako” (named for Mali’s capital city), similarly embedded a political argument in a rich evocation of daily life. In that film, the main action is a surreal (but entirely earnest) trial of the institutions of neo-liberalism for crimes against Africa. But the story keeps wondering off into the streets of the city, taking refuge from abstraction in the pleasures and travails of everyday life.
The narrative of “Timbuktu” is a weave of anecdotes and subplots, but it returns frequently to the tent in the dusty hills outside the city where Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), tending cows and drinking tea. The presence of the heavily armed fanatics running Timbuktu sends a dispute involving Kidane and one of his neighbors spinning toward tragedy and horror, but Kidane is more than just an innocent victim, in just the way that Mr. Sissako’s film is more than a simple polemic. He is a symbol of decency and tolerance, of everything the extremists want to destroy, precisely because he is an intriguing, fully rendered individual. And “Timbuktu” is a political film in the way that “The Bicycle Thief” or “Modern Times” is a political film: It feels at once timely and permanent, immediate and essential.
“Timbuktu” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Horrific violence, discreetly presented.
28 May 2015
Abderrahmane Sissako may not be the most prolific of filmmakers – funding can’t be easy for a determinedly poetic and political writer-director born in Mauretania who has subsequently led a somewhat nomadic life – but he is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and ambitious writer-directors working in film today, and quite possibly one of the best.
It’s eight years since he made Bamako (2006), 12 since Waiting for Happiness (2002) and 16 since Life on Earth (1998): all very different movies, but all discernibly his, distinguished by their elliptical, oblique approach to narrative and theme, by their subtle, imaginative but finally very direct take on political, economic and ethical issues and by their quietly meticulous, detailed deployment of image and sound. Each looks at contemporary African life with a deceptively dispassionate eye: Sissako is rightly wary of apportioning blame in a unambiguous fashion, and makes quite clear that questions of cause and effect are complex and should never be answered simplistically.
His latest film Timbuktu, inspired by the horror he felt at the real-life stoning to death, in July 2012, of an unmarried couple living in Aguelhok in northern Mali, is a case in point, and it made for an unusually rewarding start to this year’s Cannes Competition. Most critics I spoke to agreed that it was probably the finest first-night press screening since Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); I’d go back even further, to Edward Yang’s A Confucian Confusion (1994). Whatever, it’s obviously ludicrously early to be talking prizes, but unless this year’s line-up is especially strong, Sissako’s film must surely be in with a chance of winning something.
It succeeds – and is characteristic of his work – on many levels. Though it sort of centres on the experiences of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), Salima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya and their young cowherd Issan – whose sudden, accidental loss of control of a pregnant cow results, tragically, in several deaths – the film takes in a far wider range of characters and narrative strands.
Gradually it moves from an almost discursive account of the oppressive zeal of gun-wielding jihadists to a more focussed, only slightly more conventional portrait of their deadly actions. A female fishmonger resists the imposition of gloves, a mother asks why she should allow her teenage daughter to be married off to a total stranger, friends sing together at home: all end up in makeshift courts overseen by sharia extremists who don’t even originate from the Timbuktu area or speak the local language. Resistance is logical, widespread, courageous and – too often – futile. The film, fragmented, elegant, uninsistent but utterly persuasive, embraces all this and much more.
Though confronting extremist intolerance and sometimes murderous injustice, Sissako consistently and deftly avoids clumsily simplistic characterisation. Even the jihadists are depicted as intelligent – and prepared, to some degree, to listen; it’s ideology, and a lack of awareness of human suffering, that gets in the way.
Sissako respects the faith of others, but even more allows for the right to choose one’s way of living or dying. The opening sequence, of a gazelle fleeing hunters and of statues being destroyed by gunfire, shows how nature, tradition and art are at risk from a violent belief in one’s own superiority. Dreamlike sequences of kids playing soccer without a ball, or of a crazed, shaman-like woman stopping an armed, fundamentalists’ 4×4 simply by spreading her arms, likewise reveal how Sissako can turn everyday actions into telling and affecting metaphor.
Sofian El Fani’s superb ’Scope camerawork and Amine Bouhafa’s lyrical score (a treat for fans of Anouar Brahem) help to hold the somewhat fragmented narrative together, as does Sissako’s familiar tonal boldness. Even if his purpose here is deeply serious in social, philosophical, political and humanist terms, he’s not at all afraid to leaven the brew with moments of humour: for example, a discussion of defeats and victories that turns out to be about football, not battle.
Likewise, a brutal if mercifully brief scene of death by stoning is followed by a mysterious, lovely sequence of a man performing a silent ballet, perhaps redemptive or purificatory. This coup de cinema is as impressive and compelling as Kidane’s flight from a killing, shown in distant long shot but far more eloquent than any close-up in the Cannes openerGrace of Monaco. Sissako understands both the world he’s lived in and cinema itself. His films have always been both memorably magical and supremely honest; this is no exception.