The name ‘Timbuktu’ has always been used to refer to an unknown and unknowable place. To have gone there is to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest, a favourite of festivals since its bow at Cannes earlier in the year, shines a light on the unknowable. It takes a look behind the walls of this city to show us something frighteningly prescient. With the rise of hardline groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram, any illustration that can be offered of life under such regimes is welcome, so long as it isn’t sensationalist.By this measure, Timbuktu is a clear success. It has high drama and energy, but it’s also smart and challenging, refusing to offer easy answers.
Its intent is clear from the opening scene, as a gazelle is hunted by Islamist militias in a van adorned in a black and white flag. Whatever about the gazelle, but the van of radicals could have been lifted from a TV news report. The militias belong to the Ansar Dine group, whose forces seized the Malian capital in mid-2012 and established a short-lived nation that never got international recognition. Naturally, it’s shot from an outraged point of view, but Timbuktu never gives in to histrionics or over-reaction. It simply and tastefully shows how everyday folk (try to) cope with the harsh regime installed by the militias. A female fishmonger bemoans having to wear gloves, while a gentleman’s shortened trousers earn him a warning. Everyday life has been invaded, and the fear and frustration is written on everyone’s faces. Sissako clearly has sympathy for all involved, but the militias are all threat and no progress, and as such are worthy only of contempt.
Though many characters come and go in Timbuktu, the central characters are Kidame (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki, singer with Tuareg band Kel Assouf), trying to live their lives in peace before being confronted with the full force of Sharia law. As is so often the case in life, the adults will make the mistakes and their children (in this case, Kidame and Satima’s daughter Toya, played by Layla Walet Mohamed) will be the ones to pay the price. Sissako and co-writer Kessen Tall don’t portray any one character as being a rebellious hero or saviour. It is simply people trying to cope with a new and violent rule of law . Yet even the Islamists themselves appear unsure of their aims; watch as they struggle to remember their laws as they announce them to the locals. More leeway is given to some people as opposed to others. Their desired perfect religious state is clearly going to be a long work in progress. All the while, people’s passions and grievances get the better of them, leading to murder and despair. Timbuktu can both please the eye (Stunning wide shots of sunsets over a river, for example) and horrify (Scenes of scourgings and stonings are necessarily brutal).
It’s a testament to Sissako’s skill that he can provide such a comprehensive portrait of life under such a regime in under 100 minutes. Admittedly, it does mean some characters feel like comic relief rather than genuine stakeholders in this drama. The resident enforcer and the local eccentric woman grab some giggles, perhaps at their own cost. Still, it is the drama that lingers in the mind afterwards. Timbuktu is grounded by a sense of futility; desperation looms like a sandstorm. The film foreshadows its outcome, but how else could it end? It ends on a spirit of hopelessness balanced with enough openness to allow a sliver of possibility through. This is the message to take from Timbuktu. In the depths of repression, there is always a sliver of hope. Thanks to Sissako, it’s a message delivered with skill, patience and grace.