Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako.
Written by: Abderrahmane Sissako & Kessen Tall.
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed (Kidane), Abel Jafri (Abdelkerim), Toulou Kiki (Satima), Layla Walet Mohamed (Toya), Mehdi A.G. Mohamed (Issan), Hichem Yacoubi (Djihadiste), Kettly Noël (Zabou), Fatoumata Diawara (La chanteuse), Adel Mahmoud Cherif (L'Imam), Salem Dendou (Le chef djihadiste), Mamby Kamissoko (Djihadiste), Yoro Diakité (Djihadiste), Cheik A.G. Emakni (Omar), Zikra Oualet Moussa (Tina), Weli Cleib (Juge), Djié Sidi (Juge), Damien Ndjie (Abu Jaafar).
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a film of gradually building power – a portrait of life in a small town outside the title city, in which jihadists have recently taken over. At first, their presence is annoying, and almost comical – they tell a man to roll up his pants, because it’s the new law, and when he’s unable to, he eventually just takes off the pants. They tell a woman she needs to wear gloves when she handles the fish she sells – and she yells at them that she cannot do her job with them on. The jihadists drive around the town on motorcycles, using a megaphone to announce the new laws to a populace who largely ignores them, and goes about their day-to-day lives as best they can. As the film progresses however, these jihadists will not seem quite so funny – especially as the film builds to its tragic climax.
The main action in the film involves Kidane – a young cattle farmer, who lives a sweetly idyllic life a little outside of town, with his wife and daughter, and his small herd (it has 8) of cattle. He has hired a young boy to help with the cattle – and one day, as the boy is out with the herd, one of them breaks free in the watering hole and ends up smashing the nets of a local fisherman – who in anger kills the cow. When Kidane finds out, he goes to confront the fisherman – stupidly bringing his pistol along. A fight ensues, and Kidane ends up killing the other man. It’s no mystery who did it, and Kidane is brought in for interrogation. The interrogation scene is the best, and most tense, in the movie – as it is simultaneously comic, tragic and intense – as it gradually becomes clear just how screwed Kidane is. His interrogators are not bad men – but even they are powerless to stop what is coming.
Some of the other jihadists however are bad men. One in particular comes to the house of a young woman who caught his eye and wants to marry her – she doesn’t want to, her parents don’t want her to, but he is insistent. How can they possibly say no to him, when he came to their house and asked so politely? Next time he comes, he will not be so polite – and so, of course, he isn’t – as the young woman is taken at night, and married to him against her will. Her parents complain – but the other jihadists have his back – he’s a good man, they say, how can they possibly object?
What’s striking about Timbuktu is just how quiet a movie it is. Everyone in the movie is respectful in the tone of voice they use, and conversations seem to be between rational adults. It’s only when you listen to them closely it becomes clear how absurd they are. The townspeople are scared – rightly so, as anything from playing music to playing soccer will get you lashed – so even when they have a legitimate complaint with the jihadist, they approach them with respect. For their part, the jihadist want to project of authority and holiness – so even though they are really violent, misogynistic bullies – they are respectful about things, and insist that what they are doing is the right thing – the thing Allah would want them to do. How can the townspeople argue with that?
The film premiered at Cannes in 2014 – and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar last year, but in many ways I’m glad I waited a little time to see it (waited is the wrong word – I missed it in theaters, and then eventually broke down and bought the DVD when it became clear it wasn’t coming to iTunes any time soon). With the anti-Muslim bullshit being spouted by Donald Trump in America (and by Stephen Harper in Canada not too many months ago), it’s important to realize that most Muslims – and everyone in this film is Muslim – are victims of the jihadists, not ones themselves. Sissako’s humane film shows that, and shows the humanity of everyone involved – and the tragic consequences. It is quietly devastating film.