Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Screenplay: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Wayet Mohamed
Running Time: 97 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Taking place during the onset of 2012’s jihadi occupation of Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest film is a song of defiance, an achingly human tapestry of hope and despair.
You might expect such a film to have a sense of anger or aggression, a sense of visceral hatred, but Sissako’s deft touch creates people where there could have been monsters, humanity in the inhumane. Don’t think for a minute, however, that Timbuktu doesn’t despise the jihadi militia, or every single act it carries out against the inhabitants of the city. There are horrors and indignities here that give the film a tone of resignation, right through to its inevitably tragic conclusion, but even still there is hope among the hatred, like the lush trees that grow amidst the relentless arid landscapes that surround the city.
While Timbuktu weaves together a range of characters, the main story involves Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle herder who lives on the dunes outside of the main city with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), daughter Toya, and 12-year-old shepherd Issan.
When one of the cattle (named GPS) under Issan’s watch wanders off course into a local fisherman’s nets, the fisherman kills GPS with a spear. When Kidane confronts the man he is met with hostility, and in the ensuing struggle Kidane defends himself by shooting the man dead. When tried under sharia law, he is ordered to compensate the man’s family with 40 cows. As he has only seven, he is sentenced to death.
The blunt brutality of the jihadi regime aims to take the diverse culture and history of Timbuktu and reduce it down to its own singular ideology, ignoring all of its contradictions and hypocrisy in doing so. Extremist members chat about Messi, Ronaldo, Zidane, yet arrest a man for owning a football when the sport is banned. A woman is told she must wear gloves, even though this would make cleaning the fish she sells impossible. And a man who is told that trousers must be rolled up, finds that his are too baggy to do so, so he takes them off and slings them over his shoulder instead.
As new rules are announced every day there are more opportunities for unwitting citizens to fall foul of this insidious regime, but with that we get to witness the beauty and humanism of a melancholic defiance. The sight of a group of children joyously playing football with an imaginary ball, a woman blocking the passage of the militia’s jeep and the teary song of a woman being rhythmically lashed for the sin of making music are among the most powerful you’ll see all year.
In a world that likes to paint extremist terrorists as inhuman monsters, brainwashed, or hardwired to pure and blinding hate, Timbuktu shows that they are people, with flaws and weaknesses, not an unstoppable force. In showing humanity where you would least expect it, Sissako’s film is a triumphant beacon of hope, a hope that can’t be extinguished, and that will prevail.
Timbuktu is out on 10th August in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD from Curzon Artificial Eye.
Special features include the trailer, which is simply a montage set to music from the film, and as such is as good a trailer as I’ve seen in a long time, and a music video of the song.