Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is the best film I’ve seen this year: the best I expect to see this year. It’s beautifully made, persuasively acted, pertinent, necessary; it has the power to make you flinch, smile, cry, shake your fist at the screen with rage; the power to make you feel and think.
Based on the occupation of the north of Mali by Jihadists in July 2012, the film shows us a town that has recently been occupied by militants who patrol in armed groups, relaying a series of prohibitions – no smoking, no music, no football; as well as the veil, women must wear socks and gloves. What initially seems almost comic – the same men who would ban soccer hang out in their off duty moments arguing the relative merits of Zidane and Messi – turns more and more serious; despite the protestations of the moderate imam, the occupiers are implacable, their rule of law, however flawed, is absolute.
Sissako makes his argument all the more strongly by portraying these absolutists – who will sentence a young woman to a public flogging for singing in mixed company and – unwatchable, this – see a couple stoned to death for adultery – not as monsters but as reasonable men. Reasonable in their own lights.
They are shown in contrast also to the herdsman, Kidane, superbly played by Ibrahim Ahmed, who lives peacefully, but poorly, on the dunes outside the town with his wife and daughter and the young boy who looks after his small herd of cattle, and whose family is the beating heart of the film. Circumstances bring Kidane into the extremists’ power, his tenderness and faith again showing up their lack of compassion and understanding.
Political moralities aside, this is one of the most beautifully shot films I know [the cinema photographer is Sofian El Fani], the beauty of the desert landscape in bitter and telling contrast to the actions that are played out before it.
Interviewed by Geoff Andrew in the June, 2015 issue of Sight & Sound, Sissako spoke at some length about his reasons for making the film. This is some of what he had to say …
People complain about Islam being a terrible religion, but that’s not true; the people responsible for these atrocities have appropriated the religion for their own particular purposes and interests, which have nothing to do with Islam proper. Islam is a religion of compassion, forgiveness, dialogue – in the film you see these qualities in the imam. He also represents Timbuktu; it’s a city I know well and have worked in, a city of encounters, exchanges and total acceptance of difference, including religion. The city was taken over by outsiders who said you can’t do this and you must do that. Every day for a year people were humiliated and beaten just because they were singing; if they stole the slightest thing they’d have their limbs amputated. But that tends not to get mentioned. Instead we speak about five French hostages whose ransoms were paid. Though 25 million euros were paid for a ransom, the 5,000 euros needed to buy a generator to provide the locals with electricity could not be found. That is the absurd situation at the heart of the world we live in today.
As he further says …
We live in a world where suffering only seems to exist if it touches someone who looks like us.