The Cannes Film Festival has opened with an absolute blinder. No, not Grace of Monaco, but the other film that has been played today and that no one is talking about… yet. Timbuktu is one of those films that sounds gruelling; hailing as it does from Africa and dealing with Islamic repression that is rife in Mali. However, in writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako’s hands, Timbuktu is much more than simply a painstaking portrait of tyranny and misery.
Religious fundamentalists now control the streets of Timbuktu, enforcing strict bans on football, music, women not wearing socks and gloves and dishing out severe punishments to those who dare defy them. Out in the nearby desert, Kidane lives quietly in the dunes with his beloved wife Satima and daughter Toya. While Kidane and his family live a peaceful and happy existence, the people in town are ruled over with an iron fist, stoned to death or flogged for defying the rule of the Islamic police and their improvised courts. Unfortunately, Kidane comes into conflict with another man which leads to him having to face the men who rule Timbuktu with no room for mercy.
Timbuktu is surprisingly light for a film that was inspired by the stoning to death of a real life couple in Mali in 2012. Though it will leave audiences shell shocked by the end, there are many moments of levity before the inevitable tragedy ensues. Sissako mounts a sense of tension by cutting between idyllic scenes of Kidane and his young family in the dunes, the girls with their hair freely flowing and the space around them emphasising their freedom. When contrasted against the claustrophobia and constant domination of the town and its people, there is an unavoidable concern building throughout the film.
With a megaphone for shouting at the poor ordinary folk, guns in their hands and motorbikes to ride around on, the Islamic police are bullies, mini-despots determined to kill the joy and spirit of the people and crush any opposition to their rules. It would have been easy for Sissako to stereotype these men as faceless villains (as most of their faces are covered) but he humanises some through scenes of mediation between the mosque and particularly leading figure Abdelkrim. However, Timbuktu does not let them off lightly either, emphasising their hypocrisy and disregard for those who deem Islam a peaceful, thoughtful and decent religion.
What is surprising are the many funny moments that emerge from Sissako’s screenplay, as well as quiet instants of astounding beauty. Even in a depressing scene of one young man giving his jihadist video monologue, Sissako finds some biting humour from the situation. Similarly, while forced to imagine a football, the men of the town perfectly pretend that they are still playing a game and when the cast get the chance to make music, it is a welcome relief from some of the stifling sadness. It is a shame when punishments must be dished out and pride gets the better of Kidane after showing what a wonderful husband and father he can be away from the influence of the fundamentalists.
If there is a problem with Timbuktu, it is that it concentrates on a few too many characters. Though the cast are uniformly excellent, there are many stories presented here that don’t all fit into a streamlined narrative. While that isn’t necessarily a cause for criticism in itself, it does mean that some strands are left completely underdeveloped and feel a little shoehorned in. It also means that some of the tension starts to dissipate around the central story of Kidane and his family just when it should be reaching an exciting and potentially tragic climax.
Nevertheless, Timbuktu is memorable for its many characters, both terrifyingly flawed and immensely warm. Similarly, some of the shots will linger long in the memory from a man on a rooftop lit by moonlight to a wide river where Kidane commits an unfortunate crime. Most powerful though is the violence which is not dwelled upon but will still no doubt, upset audiences.
Writer/director Sissako is a competition virgin at Cannes but has been here with many films before and has also sat on the jury in previous years. Timbuktu is certain to be a strong contender in the eyes of this year’s jury dealing as it does with timely themes in a highly compassionate and balanced way. It is challenging and depressing but also surprisingly warm and even funny in places. It is a rare but welcome insight into a world too often ignored in the news and a shocking reminder of the hardships some are facing at the hands of religious fundamentalists.
Abderrahmane Sissako has created a thought provoking piece of cinema that may not make audiences into emotional wrecks but will certainly remain in the memory for some time.
About the Author
Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter