Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a series of snapshots that drifts away from being unexpectedly quaint towards a more sinister and tense broad portrait of a city, people, and existence built on a geopolitical fault line. The shifts in tone are subtle and carefully measured, and Sissako’s ability to contort atmosphere and mood without the audience becoming aware – until long after the changes have occurred – cements Timbuktu as an incredible slow-burner that is both meditative and confronting. The film opens with a close-up of a deer being shot by several armed men, establishing a sense of chaos and tension that quickly subsides. As one man shouts “tire it”, a metaphor for the broader scope of the film is evinced – a process of exhaustion. Images of soldiers using artefacts, ornaments and intricate status for target practice lather the film’s introduction with an unsettling contrast of images of relaxed and functioning life within the city of Timbuktu. The militants eventually enter the town with “the new law” wherein “smoking is forbidden, music is forbidden, women must wear socks.” The scenes where Sissako presents these laws being advocated are shot with an incredible precision; smooth, detailed, and vivid in presentation – the camera moves on a dolly throughout the city, into homes, and navigates its way surreally through the walls of a mosque. From the onset, Timbuktu exists within an intimate realm. Its violence, families, religious practices and the relationship its people share with the titular town. Sissako skims over broad narratives and opts for detailed character studies that drive home larger commentary into mortality, violence, fate and submission.
Sissako’s work actively rails against grand western narratives of absolutism. Violence, war and tension exist in abundance. However, they are placed side by side with slow-moving reflective scenes – families reclining in tents, pouring each other tea, and friends playing music. Although the film dives into a feverish realm of terror, it establishes this in a way that is never overt, never obvious and never in a form that lingers above the narrative’s surface. It moves in subtlety, driving the audiences emotions from a zone they often forget they are communicating with, as the slow-moving narrative often masks the more intricate features in Timbuktu. Sissako deploys juxtaposition with nuance and tact, weaving comedic scenes featuring cars breaking down into visceral moments of violence, intense and lengthy debates between ideologically opposed and stark moments of terror. A scene where a woman defiantly asks militants to cut her hands off in defiance is confronting and raw. It is followed by a markedly different scene where a cleric debates the leader of the extremist group as to the nature of their presence in Timbuktu – the scene is ambient, respectful on both parts, yet equally tense – drawing invaluable insights into the nature of ego and cognitive dissonance as the leader makes it visually known he agrees with the cleric, before refusing to change his actions.
The initial absence of violence isn’t coupled with an ominous tone and the gradual shift towards it is more surprising, shocking and confronting as a result. Most of the responses from civilians who refuse to adhere to demands are met with awkward acquiescence at the start. In an early scene, a man approaches a woman on a sand dune and tells her to “cover herself”, before she simply replies “Do not look at me.” He looks awkward for a while then simply decides to leave. The most intense argument in the first section of the film occurs about soccer over Zidane and France with the memorable line “It’s the one famous country that’s never won anything.” Football is banned in Timbuktu, but in the scenes Sissako includes, it still provides a refreshing presence. One of the most powerful scenes in the film surprisingly surfaces in a game of football without a football. There is no ball, but everything else remains the same; the teams, the excitement, the stress and desire to win. All of this is framed within a classical waltz piece that reminds the audience – in a statement imbued with pain – that life goes on.
Timbuktu is punctuated by an incredible depth-of-frame, filming locations that evince a natural beauty antithetical to the role of humanity in the film, and a sense of cinematography that few contemporaries could match. The film creeps towards violence, positioning the audience to be in a place to accept it. In one of Timbuktu’s most simultaneously confronting, immaculate, tragic, and achingly beautiful scenes, this transformation is cemented as a man fights another for his life in a lake as the sun sets on the city. The death is not a passing moment, for Sissako, he lets the camera linger, he relaxes and lets the soundtrack take flight. There is no dialogue after the fight begins, however, the film is at is most confronting as the civilian in resistance struggles and gives in, echoing the opening phrase of the film – “tire it”– with a new brutality. Violence creeps into the film. It is naturalised. It is subtle. It doesn’t comment on our desensitisation, nor does it try to make a philosophical statement. It does, however, demonstrate how simply an atmosphere of peace and quaintness can be corrupted, and how the slow consolidation of this terror can drive it further into a realm never initially imaginable.
Music recurs as a metaphor for hope throughout the film. “They’re playing music. Should I arrest them?”, a militant ironically beckons into his iPhone. Song remains the most intimate form in which expression is shown throughout the film. Music is something of absolute and unadulterated beauty. A woman is sentenced to forty lashes for singing and howls in song as her sentence is carried out. Sissako promulgates sensory and primordial emotions in these scenes from his cast, with their pain and their reflections never feeling remotely manufactured.
Dialogue creeps in and out of the film, sometimes lasting for a minute, sometimes setting itself up for a much longer stay. In one of the final scenes as a man becomes aware he will be sentenced to death, the conversation quickly develops into the emotional peak of the film. In a scene that recalls Bergman’s great arguments, the man asks the leader of the extremists if he has children before revealing his true hesitance for death as exclusively stemming from the fact his “daughter wont be protected anymore.” The extremists response to the translator (“Knowing his daughter will soon be an orphan really upsets me… but don’t translate that.”) is coupled with the same sense of cognitive dissonance that punctuated his debate with the cleric. Sissako presents conflict, hesitance and even regret in the leader; it’s never enough to prevent his subsequent actions, but it adds a rare complexity to his characters that most directors would brush over. As the man sombrely states: “I’ll miss only one thing: a face. My daughter’s face, my wife’s face.”, the film is given its conclusion as something futile, yet surreal; defined by a pain-tinged, captivating beauty, Timbuktu is a rare film that challenges and confronts the audience in ways that are never overt, aggressive or proselytising – Sissako’s ability to convey what he does while avoiding these pitfalls cements Timbuktu as one of the strongest films screening at the festival.
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