A magical realist portrait of Mali under occupation, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu makes for a surprisingly entertaining, satirical riddle of the sands.
Desert Stormby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Almost ten years since the release of his last film Bamako, Abderrahmane Sissako returns to Mali with Timbuktu. But in the intervening years, things have changed – what with the seizure of the North by Tuareg rebels, civil war, the declaration of an independent state and a military coup. And Timbuktu is Sissako’s very personal take on terrorism and the Islamist occupation – as a surreal wave of repression washes over the city, forcing women to wear headscarves, gloves and burkas, as well as banning music, sport and smoking. Inspired by the real-life account of a couple stoned to death during the occupation, Sissako focuses his attention on life on the ground, as men, women and children struggle to understand the sudden changes going on about them, their peaceful existence of football and tuareg music turned on its head as dissidents are treated to 40 licks of the lash for singing or standing in the same room as a man. It’s life, but not as we know it.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) is a cattle-herder on the edge of the city. A berber, he lives as a nomad with his wife and daughter Satima (Toulou Kiki) until one day one of his cows destroys a fisherman’s net. Angry and distraught, the two men argue over how to repair the damage – and when Kidane returns with a gun to scare the fisherman, he accidentally shoots him. Meanwhile, Islamist terrorists have taken over the city of Timbuktu, imposing sharia law on its inhabitants. Jihadist General Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) is driven around by Omar (Cheik AG Emakni), a local who also acts as an interpreter between Tuareg, Bambara, Arabic and even English, and it’s not long before they take Kidane into custody. The farmer is sentenced to pay the fisherman’s family blood money – an impossible sum of 40 cows. And with only seven cattle to his name, Kidane is sentenced to death – a gentle soul caught up in the baffling legal system of a rapidly changing world.
Unlike Bamako or Waiting For Happiness before it, there’s a new seam of magical realism in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. It’s not just the surreal strangeness of barked orders from the military, as a woman is forced to cover her modesty with a pair of gloves while selling her fish, and which also takes place in a bizarre clamour of multiple languages over empty streets, it’s also in the way the soldiers attempt to enforce their laws, chasing all over town for musicians like actors in a farce. And in the way the inhabitants of Timbuktu learn to cope with their new imposed lifestyle – playing imaginary football or even buried up to the neck in sand. Just as in Kidane’s story, caught in the cogs of a changing legal system, politics are given a biting power – as, rather than empathise with the characters as victims, we’re encouraged to engage with them as ideas. And Timbuktu isn’t in itself political, dramatic or manipulative, but rather a delicate slice of satire. Served ice-cold.
Like the triangle of desert brush that forms a very female-looking bush between the undulations of two sand dunes, Sissako’s politics are playful. But that doesn’t mean they’re lacking; as in the end Sissako’s pointedly enigmatic landscaping reveals a casualty of war laid bare, supine and open to marauders. Kidane’s story of crime and punishment isn’t a rousing courtroom drama like Zeresenay Mehari’s Difret, but rather a tragic comedy of errors – from the bovine altercation with his neighbour to his wife and daughter, who, trying to contact him, are forced to climb the dunes for better mobile phone signal. Communication is constantly thwarted – with megaphones bellowing while nobody’s listening or with the General only able to talk with the locals through his haphazard interpreter.
A collection of characters, stories and ideas, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a very accessible, engaging and entertaining scoop on Mali’s recent history. It’s fiction and demands to be treated as such – a film that stands by itself, both within and outside of politics. And with its gentle anarchy and sardonic fun, it’s also quietly rebellious. Inevitably though, some of the strands are stronger than others and Timbuktu doesn’t quite thread its stories together into a satisfying whole. Nevertheless, Sissako’s film remains a fascinating portrait of a country in the midst of upheaval. Part satire, part family legal drama and part political petition – it’s a quixotic mix. Both fresh and unique for all its shifting sands.
Timbuktu is released on 29th May 2015 in the UK