Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) is a cattle herder living with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) on the sands near the city of Timbuktu. They remain aloof from the jihadists who run the town and impose their contradictory laws upon its population. However, when one of Kidane’s herd is killed by a local fisherman the life of he and his family are irrevocably disrupted and he soon finds himself the subject of the merciless scrutiny of the jihadists.
The Critics Said
“This is in no way the remorselessly grim film its subject matter might lead you to expect – it’s full of life, irony, poetry and bitter unfairness. It demands respect, but it also earns it.” Tim Robey, The Telegraph, 2015
“Performances are mesmeric, even the smaller roles, and Sissako’s unfailing sense of color, contrasting with the pale desert landscape, holds the eye without distracting from the story.” – Jay Wiessberg, Variety, 2014
Country: France, Mauritania
Language: French, Arabic, Bambara, English, Songhay
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Writer: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed
Runtime: 97 minutes
The militant Islamic fundamentalism of groups such as Islamic State has well established itself as the great antagonist of modern Western war cinema, films such as American Sniper (2014) and The Hurt Locker (2008) and the television series Homeland being the most high-profile examples where the ideology of these fundamentalist organisations is regarded as a danger to be subdued at its foreign source, in order to prevent its incursion onto domestic soil. But what about those Middle-Eastern territories already enduring the governance of IS and its relations? There are few, if any, cinematic examples where life under their rule is explored in any detail. Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako has offered such a perspective with Timbuktu, a film that humanistically articulates what life is like in a Malian city occupied by a group of jihadists.
Sissako’s camera floats about the city, alighting on its various residents and documenting their interactions with their jihadi governors, but it is the character of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), a cattle herder living among the sand dunes outside the city’s walls, that provides the main narrative thread. He, his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) try to live peaceful lives and reject the influence of the jihadists but an impulsive moment of aggression after the killing of one of his cattle leads to Kidane becoming subject to the scrutiny of their sharia law.
Timbuktu is a remarkably serene film, even in some of its moments of violence. The episode that leads to Kidane’s arrest takes place on the placid waters of a lake at sunset, Sissako’s camera left at a distance, as if it is the landscape he is shooting rather than the bad-tempered men within it. The character of Kidane is similarly composed throughout his subsequent interviews with the authorities and here his piety in the face of his impending punishment contrasts greatly with the arbitrary prohibitions that the jihadists enforce in the name of their deity. Theirs is an ideology of contradictions, one that allows them to pass judgement upon murderers but which also justifies them burying people to their necks and stoning them to death for the crime of adultery. Similarly, although all music has been banned, upon discovering a house from which music can be heard a patrol are unsure of what action to take because the music is being played in worship of god. ‘Should we arrest them?’ they ask their superior. The decision they make – and the logic in reaching it – is obscured.
There is a restrained anger driving Timbuktu that is at odds with the serenity of its imagery. Judgement is not outwardly passed on the jihadists but their practises are left exposed for our own interpretation. The film even dares to approach the fundamentalists with the same humanistic perspective as Timbuktu’s citizens, their jealousies, insecurities and interests creating some clear differentiation from the Kalashnikov-carrying cardboard-cutout villains that represent the standardized terrorists of Western film and television. If anything this adds to the pathos of Timbuktu, that these men, whose sole difference to the residents of the city is their ideology, cannot recognise the inhumanity of some of their practices and the contradiction in enforcing laws which they struggle to adhere to themselves.
Abderrahmane Sissako has presented this complex exploration of life under the rule of Islamic fundamentalism poetically and without exaggeration. His scrutiny of the jihadists is unwavering, as is his portrayal of their most brutal punishments. The film opens with silence and an image of a gazelle running across the desert; it is spoiled by the roar of the jeep and the shouts of the jihadists hunting it. Timbuktu follows the same pattern in presenting us with the silence of peace shattered by the roar of fanaticism.