I will admit I knew next to nothing about Timbuktu prior to seeing Abderrahmane Sissako’s film. For me, it was just the place the evil butler tried to send the kittens in The Aristocats. I certainly had no idea about its past as a hub of Islamic language and culture. I do remember when it was briefly taken over by the Maghreb arm of al Qaeda, which brings us to the events depicted in the film. All I knew going in was that it was about a town that gets taken over by jihadist militants. I was expecting it to be brutal and depressing. What I saw instead was a beautifully crafted portrayal of life under extremist control. I knew a bit about the Big News Story of occupation and liberation, but the film gave me a closer look at the smaller picture (which I think might be the more important one), and the ways in which people confront the loss of the smallest freedoms.
The central plot follows Kidane, a guitar-strumming cattle herder and his family who live peacefully in the desert, beyond the reach of the militants. Of course, they don’t stay beyond that reach for very long. While Kidane and his family are the heart of the narrative, the rest of the characters are every bit as compelling, even those who are only in one or two scenes. Though we don’t see more than a couple of brief moments in their lives, they stayed with me long after the film ended. Your long takes and frequent use of close-ups afforded the actors near-total command of my attention, from the girl glaring in sullen defiance at members of a Sharia tribunal, to the misery and regret on the face of a young jihadist as he briefly recalls his former life as an aspiring rapper. I say near-total command of my attention because I can’t ignore the profound impact the film’s other visual and stylistic elements had on me.
This is a film about people rebelling at every opportunity, from the subtlest of expressions to outright defiance, against the constraints forced upon them. I feel like you were in lock step with these many tiny rebellions. The militants in the film spend a lot of time droning on and on about everything that is forbidden, and it’s a long bloody list. But for every forbidden pleasure, we see a character indulging in it. And you aid and abet the townsfolk by infusing each shot with colour and beauty. No bright clothing allowed? Boom - voodoo priestess parading through town in vivid blues and reds with a pet chicken and zero fucks given. Football is forbidden? Cut to kids joyfully kicking an imaginary ball around. No music allowed? Secret midnight jam session captured with a sense of intimacy and romance that would most certainly not fly with the ‘Chef Djihadiste’. Not everyone gets away with their acts of defiance, and here we see the kind of cruelty of which the jihadists are capable. Mercifully, you don’t dwell on these images. We all know how brutal their ‘justice’ is. We don’t need to see it play out in any detail.
The film uses a gentle yet unyielding touch in underscoring the absurdity of the jihadists’ attitudes and actions. That it also uses humour to this end was surprising, and one of the things that makes Timbuktu unique. There are moments of flat-out mocking - I noticed you frequently had a donkey wander in and out of the shot whenever the jihadists approached. Well played. But there are also moments of softer derision that treat their targets with grace and empathy. ‘Jihadist doing tai chi in a trance’ isn’t something I ever thought I would see, and it makes no sense at all. It’s ridiculous and we all have a good laugh at his expense because (in the words of my companion),“fuck that guy”, but it is also one of the most serene and beautiful moments in the entire film.
The end of the film isn’t all that optimistic. French and Malian forces would drive the jihadists out within a year, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the other places and people who continue to struggle under the control of Islamist extremists. You could have easily clubbed us over the head with the mindless cruelty and destruction wrought by such groups but I, for one, am glad you chose to go with a hopeful reminder that while extremist ideology may exert control over one’s body, the spirit puts up one hell of a fight.