At the beginning of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu we see hunters in a jeep – Islamic militants who are part of the group Ansar Dine – chasing and shooting at an antelope on the edge of the Sahara Desert. They are unable to hit the animal and soon turn their attention to immobile objects instead, using traditional, small statues for target practice. Presumably these have been confiscated from residents of the titular Malian city, where the jihadists have taken root, as the carved objects that are based on female bodies suggest a state of undress. It’s an ominous symbolic opening.
Rather than using a linear story or focusing on a few individuals, Sissako’s film – made in his native Mauritania – cuts between various incidents and characters to examine a situation that has become increasingly familiar for the residents of many towns and cities across northern Mali, and more generally northern Africa. The visiting militia (easily marked out by their ubiquitous AK-47s) impose a series of rules on the confused people of Timbuktu who, as one exasperated local imam points out, are generally observant Muslims. Orders are given by megaphone informing residents that they are no longer allowed to smoke, play soccer, make music or even sit outside their houses. Those entering and leaving a mosque are told to roll up their trousers. A woman selling fish in the market becomes understandably exasperated by a new decree that all women must wear gloves in public. Gunmen lit by the moon patrol the city at night, watching from the rooftops for minor transgressions. If all of this wasn’t petty enough we later see a soldier mysteriously telling residents in broken English that ‘any old thing’ has now been outlawed, the mirth induced being somewhat bittersweet given that people are actually forced to put up with this behaviour in real life.
As if to highlight the absurdity of the situation Sissako includes a scene in which boys and young men play soccer without a ball, pretending to kick, tackle one another and score goals. When the militants drive past menacingly the two teams simply stop what they’re doing and pretend to be in the middle of otherwise innocuous exercises, before returning to their imaginary game when the coast is clear. The soldiers and their leaders enforce more and more rules in the hope of catching people out, thereby justifying their own existence and actions, while residents try to circumvent the impositions safely. Meanwhile the hypocrisy of the militants is shown in a number of scenes that reveal their impunity: we see jihadist Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) sneaking a smoke behind a sand dune and being informed by his driver that all the other soldiers know about his vice, while an aggressively-forced marriage is dismissed by Islamist lawmen as just and fair simply because it involves a fellow Ansar Dine member.
This is a very serious – and current – subject for a film and acts of cruelty are inevitably depicted, the first half giving way to a much darker second. The director briefly shows a stoning, though it’s unclear who the couple being stoned are or what their transgression was (although earlier we do hear a jihadist with a loudspeaker confirm that adultery is punishable by death). A group of talented musicians, making music that sounds beautiful and unlikely to offend, is broken up by gunmen and the transgressors are arrested and tried instantly; the female singer is given a public lashing for casually mixing with the opposite sex. There is also an execution by gunfire.
The nearest Timbuktu comes to a main character, or a story arc, is with regards to Tuareg herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives away from the city on the edge of the desert with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Many other nomads have apparently fled the area but Kidane wishes to stay, despite the fact Ansar Dine men are not content with their business within the city and their visits to the family come laden with implied sexual threats. We return to Kidane’s story repeatedly and, somewhat inevitably, he finds himself at the mercy of the jihadists and their bureaucracy.
Beautifully photographed by Sofian El Fani, who incorporates a standout shot of a lake in the aftermath of a bloody fight that serves as a bridge between the two distinct halves of the film, Timbuktu is full of images that linger in the mind: a priestess named Zabou (Kettley Noel), the one woman who seems to instill a little fear in the minds of the soldiers, blocks a jeep in the middle of a road; donkeys carrying straw wind their way through narrow alleyways; then there’s the aforementioned phantom football match and, of course, the harrowing scenes of violence (which are generally short but powerful). Meanwhile just as important to the overall piece are the numerous interactions between local residents and the jumpy Ansar Dine soldiers: their awkward conversations are full of mistrust, misunderstandings and poor translations – a mix of Arabic, French, Tamasheq and English is spoken during the film and more than 50 languages are spoken throughout Mali – which highlight the problems faced by such a society in a period of extreme transition. Timbuktu is a must-see, rightly lauded since it competed for the Palme D’Or in 2014, and one that looks at the effect of intolerance and fundamentalism on both individuals and an entire community with subtlety and grace.
Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako.
Written by: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall.
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Fatoumata Diawara, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettley Noel, Mehdi AG Mohamed, Layla Walet Mohamed, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Salem Dendou.
Cinematography: Sofiane El Fani.
Editing: Nadia Ben Rachid.
Music: Amine Bouhafa.
Running Time: 95 minutes.