Deep Focus: Timbuktu
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is bracingly original and unexpected—a welcome shock to the system for American moviegoers who’ve grown used to seeing prosaic melodrama in topical or torn-from-the-headline movies. This fearless poetic response to the jihadist occupation of the title city and its imposition of Sharia law unfolds in charged tableaux and conveys the wreckage of a civilization lyrically and potently, in 95 spare, suggestive minutes. What a relief to see a fact-inspired, imaginative work that doesn’t start with the words “Based on a true story.” Still, it might help situate viewers to know that the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine dominated Timbuktu and other towns in northern Mali (in West Africa) for most of 2012, before French and Malian forces drove them out.
Sissako, who was raised in Mauritania and Mali and co-wrote the film with Kessen Tall, sets a unique tone of otherworldly dread in the opening shot of a gazelle racing away from a pickup truck filled with rifle-toting extremists. In Sissako’s vision, the jihadists’ attempt to lay down the (Sharia) law is more successful at annihilating everything organic than it is at re-establishing an antique and absolute morality.
Part of Sissako’s strategy is to thrust viewers into a roiling yet slow-moving and mysterious maelstrom. In the first few minutes, jihadist bullets tear up tribal masks and West African statues that could be pagan gods or outlawed art. Sissako proves his visual mastery immediately: one sculpture falls backward as if executed, while another issues gun-smoke from its mouth, as if taking a hellish last gasp.
Then we see jihadists hand a pale, bespectacled man to another group of armed guards, taking care to get his medications just right because one has been refilled with a generic drug. Is the man a hostage, or, perhaps, a rival group’s negotiator? We never find out. But the scene is oddly indelible because of its casualness: the guards remove his blindfold, inspect his meds, hand him a drink (with a low-key “cheers”), then restore his blindfold and seat him in another Toyota pickup. It’s a gently ominous introduction to this film’s vision of jihadist hegemony.
Rather than tell a story, Sissako maps out an oppressed region with a disturbing emotional topography. The ancient city, with its narrow sand streets and modest sandstone or adobe-brick buildings, is a physical and political maze. Jihadists harass anyone outside by day, ordering women to wear socks and gloves and men to roll up their pants (presumably to pay homage to the Prophet Mohammed). They forbid citizens to hang out or “do just about anything,” as one bored town crier puts it. They argue fervidly about their favorite soccer teams while forbidding soccer. In one chilling moment, a soccer ball bumps down a set of stairs, and the young man who follows seconds later is immediately accused of the lash-worthy sin of illegal play. In its own matter-of-fact way, it’s as powerful as the murdered girl’s bouncing ball in Fritz Lang’s M.
In brilliant moments of mute protest and irony, an old man strips to his shorts after vainly trying to get his loose, flowing pants to stay put, and an old woman gingerly walks barefoot, without gloves or veil, in an empty street, in glorious cerulean finery. In the nighttime, patrols armed with guns and flashlights spy on rooftops and alleyways, tuning their ears to pick up any sound of music. They report by cell phone to the town’s Jihadist Central—three dour, sleepy-looking men in a Spartan room, armed with weapons and a Koran—when they overhear one household singing songs of praise to the Prophet.
What keeps the movie from becoming static is Sissako’s modulation of the atmosphere, from volatile and anarchic to monolithically intense and bleak. Early on, a brave female fishmonger who says she can’t wear gloves and sell fish dares the morality cops to cut off her hands. They back away. The city’s resident loon imperiously parades around with her beribboned hair exposed. Wearing a multicolored gown complete with a crazy-long flowing train, she casually calls jihadists “assholes” and stops one of their transports simply by holding her arms aloft. Later, a gorgeous young woman croons a pulsating song, supported by a roomful of friends and musicians. She, though, doesn’t escape punishment. In one of the movie’s many exalting leaps into transcendent feeling, she suddenly elevates her cries of agony under the lash into a lacerating aria. She sings to bear the pain and to prove she’s still alive.
In a printed director’s statement, Sissako has said that what triggered this movie was an incident that took place in Aguelhok, another northern Mali town that fell into the hands of Ansar Dine: “It was the 2012 death by stoning . . . of a man and a woman who had loved each other and had children, and whose only crime was that they had never been married in the eyes of God.” His deliberately abrupt insertion of a similar scene into Timbuktu focuses on a man and a woman responding with stoic resignation to being planted in the sandy execution grounds up to their necks. This premature burial is the obscene prelude to lethal stones raining down on their heads.
Timbuktu makes you understand how clashes that fizzle out in normal times turn calamitous under an inhumane regime. In the desert not far from the city, a goat and cattle herder named Kidane (Ibhrahim Ahmed dit Pino), his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter, Toya (Laula Walet Mohamed) and an orphan boy, Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), who tends their cattle, live a traditional pastoral life, though most of their neighbors have fled. Apart from Satima, who misses her female friends, they go on as before. Kidane even plays his guitar, since there’s no one around to report him.
Sissako basks in the family’s warmth, without romanticizing their patriarchal unit. Kidane exudes domestic love and masculine complacency. He’s a touching protagonist, with emotions close to the surface; Satima seems more distant and impassive. But she’s the one who understands the dangers surrounding them. A rangy, fidgety jihadist named Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) has his eye on her. Abdelkrim provides the movie’s fullest portrait of jihadist arrogance and hypocrisy. He orders Satima to veil her head while looking at her lasciviously. He smokes, he thinks, in secret, and is amazed that his driver says everybody knows about it. Just to blow off steam, he picks up his automatic rifle and shoots the top off a fragile mound of desert greenery.
The family’s downfall comes from a longstanding feud with a nearby fisherman. This man carries himself like a knife-blade and gleams with hatred whenever Issan allows Kidane’s cattle to veer too close to his precious nets. When Kidane prepares to confront him over the meandering of a favorite, pregnant cow into his nets, Satima urges her husband—in vain—to leave his gun in the tent. When Kidane says that “the humiliation must stop,” you know that he’s responding to pressures that go beyond water rights or the fate of a beloved animal. Kidane’s reactive anger and aggrieved honor, which put at risk his beloved wife and the daughter who’s the apple of his eye, anchor the film emotionally. He grows in stature as he clings to his love for them. Sissako views Kidane’s tragedy as one of many. Multiple anecdotes about town-dwellers prove just as desolating, like a forced marriage between a modest, beautiful Timbuktu girl and a haughty radical invader.
It’s Sissako’s collaboration with cinematographer Sofian El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Color) that lifts and shrivels your heart at the same time. Fierce, poignant imagery abounds. In a panoramic wide shot, the moviemakers depict the aftermath of a murder in a shallow river, the killer splashing back in a straight line to the far shore, aghast at his own action, and the victim lying still before making one last, desperate stab at life. The filmmakers shoot with intimate closeups a man breaking into an impromptu, tai chi–like ballet of longing and, perhaps, expiation (he bows his head and plunges his fingers into sand). And in one of the most astonishing sequences of this century, the camera elegantly partners teams of football players who play a soccer match without the ball. It’s a defiant dance of life performed with surpassing grace in a violated desert landscape, as jihadists on motorbikes buzz the playing field like Death’s emissaries in Cocteau’s Orpheus. The scene is a triumph of imagination for these characters and for the filmmakers. It makes you both impossibly happy and devastatingly sad.
My major quibble with the movie pales before its poetry. But I wish Sissako had found some artful way of incorporating more history into his visual mosaic. Only by reading Yaroslav Trofimov’s Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu, did I learn that a 2004 Freedom House report ranked Mali as one of two totally “free” countries out of 47 Muslim-majority states. According to Trofimov, Mali in general and Timbuktu in particular nurtured religious tolerance and secular democracy. When Trofimov visited Timbuktu a decade ago, during statewide elections, the city even had a feminist candidate for mayor. Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, told him: “The state never enmeshed itself with the affairs of religion, and that’s what allowed us to have a stable and peaceful country. We see nothing in our religion that’s against democracy. It wouldn’t even come to a Malian’s mind to think that there is a contradiction.”
In this context, Timbuktu takes on an apocalyptic impact. It chronicles a kind of barbarism that rends the very fabric of historical reality.