A gazelle races across the desert in the opening scene of “Timbuktu,” only to have the silence shattered
by gunshots from a jeep full of Islamic jihadists hunting it. That chase at the
start of Abderrahmane Sissako’s fierce and vibrant film is an effective (if uncharacteristically
blunt) metaphor for its essential conflict, between a peaceful village and its violent
invaders. In a year of strong foreign language films, “Timbuktu,” Mauritania’s Oscar
entry, deserves its place among higher-profile nominees including Russia’s
artistically beautiful “Leviathan” and Poland’s rigorous “Ida.”
The film is set in Mali, during the period when Islamic extremists
took control of Timbuktu, from 2012-13. Eye-opening but never didactic, it is a
beautifully shot work that relies on a non-narrative tradition, with glimpses
of daily life taking precedence over the sliver of a story.
Much of the film is shown from the point of view of the victims
of the invaders who enforce Sharia law. They insist that women wear
socks and gloves, and only the brave or foolish dare to resist. Among them is a
fish-seller who howls that she’s had enough, that she’ll lose her business if she can’t handle the fish.
In the desert near the village, a couple and their 12-year
old daughter live quietly in a tent, isolated because their more practical neighbors
have fled. The father, a cattle and goat herder named Kidane, is confident they’ll
return. The gentle tone of their lives, especially Kidane’s affection for and
playful relationship with his daughter, provides the film’s most poignant and
wrenching contrast to the jihadist’s grip on the village.
Sissako also depicts meetings between the jihadists and a reasonable
local imam, a character who makes it clear that the film is not demonizing
Islam, but the extremists who pervert it. They are thoroughly corrupt and selfish,
twisting the Koran to their own uses, forcing local women into marriages
that the imam is powerless to stop.
Against this, Kidane’s optimism is wishful idealism. Sissako
has said, after all, that the film was inspired by the real-life death by stoning
of a couple who had children but had never married. Sissako does not tell their
story specifically, but “Timbuktu” does have an inevitable yet shocking
The cinematography, by Sofian El Fani (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”), drops splashes
of bright fabric and color into the serene brown desert palette. Because it was
too dangerous to work in Mali, “Timbuktu” was made in Mauritania, where Sissako
was raised. He studied film making in Moscow, has lived in Paris for decades,
and has directed other acclaimed works,
including “Bamako” (2007). His expertise shows here in the seamless mix of
professional actors and non-professionals.
Only 97 minutes long, “Timbuktu” is
an intense immersion into a horrifying and desperate reality that we usually
experience as no more than a headline.