Film Review: ‘Timbuktu’

Timbuktu Cannes 2014

Abderrahmane Sissako confirms his status as one of the true humanists of recent cinema with this stunningly shot and deeply empathetic drama.

In the hands of a master, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones. Abderrahmane Sissako is just such a master, and while previous films have showcased his skill at bringing magnetic dignity to his characters, “Timbuktu” confirms his status as one of the true humanists of recent cinema. Set in the early days of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, the film is a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators. The film’s Cannes berth and critical acclaim will translate to strong Euro arthouse play with niche Stateside appeal.

Most news reports from the time focused on the destruction by foreign Islamic fundamentalists of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites  unconscionable acts that scar a people’s psyche. Sissako powerfully alludes to this within the first few minutes, as a truckload of jihadists machine-gun traditional masks and statuettes. It’s a perfect way of suggesting the laying waste to centuries-old traditions while allowing the director to then focus on people, rather than artifacts.

As in his previous pics (“Bamako,” “Waiting for Happiness”), Sissako offers a choral structure, here designed to convey the multicultural makeup of the area where city dwellers of various ethnicities and the nomadic Tuareg people coexist in generally respectful fashion. Newly arrived Arabic-, French- and English-speaking jihadists patrol the city and its environs (shooting was actually done in the Mauritanian cities of Oualata and Nema), enforcing bans on music, soccer, most socializing, and uncovered women. The local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) calmly argues against their narrow, ultra-orthodox dogma, but he has no influence over these intruders, a rag-tag bunch composed of doctrinally committed leaders and their largely irresolute young followers.

Rather than turning the jihadist captains into stereotypical demons, “Timbuktu” shows them as men who have not entirely forgotten their hearts but encased them in steel, projecting an outward sympathy while holding to a strict interpretation of scripture that denies self-realization, especially for women. Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) drives to the tent of a Tuareg family to convince the strong-willed Satima (Toulou Kiki) to cover her head. Her neighbors have already fled, and she tells her loving husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), that they should move closer to other people, but he wants to stay put.

A goat and cattle herder, Kidane is the proud father of Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), 12, and guardian of orphan Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). While driving the herd to water, Issan loses control of his charges and a prize cow gets caught in the nets of fisherman Amadou. Furious, Amadou spears the beast (the animal’s demise is tenderly shot); Kidane arrives packing a pistol merely as a threat, but their physical struggle makes the gun discharge, and the fisherman is killed. The sequence has a startling emotional grip yet also a protean beauty, capturing the action in a long shot of the shimmering lakeside expanse.

Punishment is swift, not just for Kidane but also for others who have transgressed the fundamentalists’ interpretation of sharia law. In town, soldiers arrest four people for making music, subjecting the singer, Fatou (Fatoumata Diawara), to 40 lashes. She kneels, dressed in a black abaya, tears staining her face, gently crying out and softly singing. It’s impossible not to compare this with Patsey’s flogging in “12 Years a Slave,” which was pitched at a far more hysterical level as the camera registered her grotesquely flayed flesh. Steve McQueen’s scene is painful to watch and emotionally draining, yet Sissako renders a similar sequence with significantly more discretion and makes its effect far more profoundly felt.

Abdelkrim shoots off the top of a tree in the dip between sand dunes, as if even nature is immodestly exposing herself. Individuality is being snuffed out, and though momentarily protected by her eccentricities, the brightly robed Zabou (Kettly Noel), part Lady of Shalott, part madwoman, surely won’t be allowed to keep flouting the authority of the self-designated Islamic police. “Timbuktu” makes very clear that this wave of intolerance isn’t grown from Malian soil, even if the relationship between nomadic shepherd and rooted fisherman is fraught with its own tension. “We are the guardians of all deeds,” says a jihadist to the imam, thereby dismissing any attempt at freedom of expression and movement.

Sissako states he was unbearably moved by an online video of an unmarried couple buried up to their heads and stoned to death; he includes a similar scene, showing just enough to make the viewer wince, yet not so much as to feel like a gory spectacle. It’s part of the power of “Timbuktu,” which endows its characters with pride and love, shows their dignity stolen, and respects their humanity enough to refuse a pornographic clarity when they’re beaten, or worse. As always in the director’s films, women are wise, forceful presences, far too often victims of men’s headstrong impulsiveness.

Performances are mesmeric, even the smaller roles, and Sissako’s unfailing sense of color, contrasting with the pale desert landscape, holds the eye without distracting from the story. D.p. Sofiane El Fani creates stately compositions quite removed from the neorealism of frequent collaborator Abdellatif Kechiche, and the music, with its combination of traditional Malian melodies and more Western orchestral accompaniment, is beautifully suited to the images.

Film Review: 'Timbuktu'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2014. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production

(Mauritania-France) A Les Films du Worso, Dune Vision, Arches Film, Arte France Cinema, Orange Studio production, in association with Indefilms 2, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, Arte France, Le Pacte, TV5 Monde, Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animee, Irina Production, Cinefeel Prod. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Sylvie Pialat, Abderrahmane Sissako, Etienne Comar.

Crew

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Screenplay, Sissako, Kessen Tall. Camera (color, widescreen), Sofiane El Fani; editor, Nadia Ben Rachid; music, Amine Bouhafa; production designer, Sebastien Birchler; costume designer, Ami Sow; sound (5.1), Philippe Welsh, Roman Dymny, Thierry Delors, Bakary Sangare; associate producers, Kessen Tall, Gilles Sitbon; assistant director, Demba Dieye.

With

Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Fatoumata Diawara, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noel, Mehdi AG Mohamed, Layla Walte Mohamed, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Salem Dendou. (Arabic, Bambara, French, English, Songhay, Tamasheq dialogue)

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  1. Brion Boyles says:

    My comment is are questions: Is this film produced by Muslims? Is the director a Muslim? Would this film be allowed in , say, Tehran or Islamabad…or the majority Muslim communities of Europe? I am not intending to be provocative…but this is the ONLY film I could locate by search engine ( keywords : Islamic, film, Muslim, drama, etc….) that wasn’t a documentary or some Islamic lecture…. Is there an Islamic film industry that produces romances, comedies, etc…?

  2. PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS, INDIA says:

    MALI: TIMBAKTU: SISSAKO’S MOST EMPATHETIC WORK

    BY PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS

    JURY MEMBER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OF INDIA,IFFI, GOVT. OF INDIA
    AND JURY MEMBER OF FRIBOURG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, FIFF, SWISS

    CURATOR INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVALS

    Abderrahmane Sissako is considered to be the most powerful auteur of Malian cinema. His films are rooted to its milieu and human living, often starkly depressive and combating. In his hands, an indignation and tragedy can be rendered with cutting clarity and subtlety, setting hysteria aside, for deeper, more richly shaded, humanist tones. Sissako is just such a master-filmmaker of Mali who highlights what is happening at Mali in the name of neo fundamentalism.

    And while previous films have indeed showcased his tremendous and skill and kinetic sense at bringing magnetic dignity to his characters, Timbuktu fortifies his status as one of the true humanists of recent cinema. Timbaktu is set in the early days of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012; the film is a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denouncing without resorting to cardboard perpetrators. The film’s Cannes berth and critical acclaim may translate the film to strong Euro art-house play with niche Stateside appeal.

    Sissako is told to be a righteous and aggressive mouthpiece of the given situation on the destruction by foreign Islamic fundamentalists of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites — unconscionable acts that scar a people’s psyche. Incidentally, Sissako powerfully alludes to the past of scar and invests the film with contemporary sensibility within the first few minutes, as a truckload of jihadists machine-gun traditional wearing masks and statuettes. It’s a powerful way of suggesting the goen-down waste to centuries-old traditions while allowing the director to focus on afflicted people, rather than artifacts.

    As in his previous films Bamako, Waiting for Happiness, Sissako offers a choral structure, almost designed to convey the multicultural makeup and network of the area where city dwellers of various ethnicities and the nomadic Tuareg people coexist in generally respectful, peaceful fashion. Newly arrived Arabic-, French- and English-speaking jihadists as guardians of new system patrolling the city and its environs ,shooting was actually done in the Mauritanian cities of Oualata and Nema,, enforcing bans on music, soccer, most socializing, and uncovered women. However, the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) calmly argues against their narrow, ultra-orthodox dogma, but he has no influence over these intruders, a rag-tag bunch composed of dogged and committed criminal leaders and their largely irresolute young followers.
    It may be mentioned that Sissako instead of rather turning the jihadist captains into stereotypical demons, Timbuktu shows them as men who have not entirely forgotten their hearts but encased them in steel, red-hot projecting an outward sympathy while holding to a strict interpretation of scripture that denies self-realization, especially for women. There is also fear complex playing a role such as Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) drives to the tent of a Tuareg family to convince the strong-willed Satima (Toulou Kiki) to cover her head. Her neighbors have already fled, and she tells her loving husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), that they should move closer to other people, but he wants to stay put. This is Sissako’s courage and pulsating mind.
    The film follows a goat and cattle herder, Kidane is the proud father of Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), 12, and guardian of orphan Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). While driving the herd to water, Issan loses control of his charges and a prize cow gets caught in the nets of fisherman Amadou. Furious, Amadou spears the beast (the animal’s demise is tenderly shot); Kidane arrives packing a pistol merely as a threat, but their physical struggle makes the gun discharge, and the fisherman is killed. The sequence has a startling emotional grip and purgation and with a protean beauty, capturing the action in a long shot of the shimmering lakeside expanse.

    Punishment is swift, not just for Kidane but also for others who have transgressed the fundamentalists’ interpretation of sharia law. It is followed by brutal tortures. In town, soldiers arrest four people for making music, subjecting the singer, Fatou, to 40 lashes. She kneels, dressed in a black abaya, tears staining her face, gently crying out and softly singing. It’s impossible not to compare this with Patsey’s flogging in “12 Years a Slave,” which was pitched at a far more hysterical level as the camera registered her grotesquely flayed flesh. Sissako in his win style renders a rumbtious sequence with significantly more discretion and makes its effect far more profoundly felt in melancholic strophe.

    Sissako shoots off the top of a tree in the dip between sand dunes, as if even nature is immodestly exposing herself. Individuality is being snuffed out, and though momentarily protected by her eccentricities, the brightly robed Zabou, part Lady of Shalott, part madwoman, surely won’t be allowed to keep flouting the authority of the self-designated Islamic police. Timbuktu makes very clear that this wave of intolerance isn’t grown from Malian soil, even if the relationship between nomadic shepherd and rooted fisherman is fraught with its own tension. “We are the guardians of all deeds,” says a jihadist to the imam, thereby dismissing any attemptliberty and freedom of expression and movement.
    Sissako states he was unbearably moved by an online video of an unmarried couple buried up to their heads and stoned to death; this is the most brutal vision for him. He includes a similar scene, showing just enough to make the viewer wince, yet not so much as to feel like a gory spectacle. It’s part of the power of Timbuktu, which endows its characters with pride, prowess and love, shows their dignity stolen, and respects their humanity enough to refuse a pornographic clarity when they’re beaten, or worse. As always in the director’s films, women are wise, forceful presences, illuminating far too often victims of men’s headstrong male-centric impulsiveness.
    Sissako , Abdoulaye Ascofaré, Souleymane Cissé, Aïda Mady Diallo, Adama Drabo, Falaba Issa Traoré so far have enriched the essence of Malian cinema and have won international laurels at major film festival during the last 20 years.
    END

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