Abderrahmane Sissako has a knack for taking weighty issues and saturating them with the every-day lives of a city’s ordinary people and, in the process, making the stories play out like vibrant, visually luscious soap operas. In his first feature film, “Bamako,” Sissako looked at European/Western colonialism, capitalist neo-imperialism and their effects on Africa. The West, as represented by the IMF and World Bank, goes on trial in the courtyard of a humble compound in Mali’s capital city. In “Timbuktu,” Sissako moves the action about 620 miles north-east, to the ancient city of learning and trade, to look at another form of cultural and ideological invasion, this time by a militant Islamic group claiming to be defenders of Islam.
In “Timbuktu,” religion unites with hypocrisy to show the steadfast yet arbitrary nature of the rules of human domination and supplication. A prominent supposed defender of Islam pays visits to a married woman, but only when her husband is not home – and she’s able to get away with having her head and face uncovered, and talking back, where other women would never get away with such ‘indecency’. Friendly debates are held between gun wielding defenders of the faith about the best European football (soccer) teams and players, even though playing football is an act of ‘haram’ that could earn you 20 lashes. Music is also ‘haram’ and can earn you 40 lashes, but a phone call is necessary to clarify whether or not to arrest people if their heavenly singing is in praise of Allah.
Rebellion comes in various guises – from the most basic outright refusal of a woman to wear gloves when her trade as a fish-monger makes it impractical; to creative, when a small mixed group (male and female) play music and sing in the comfort of a private home; to the syncopated ingenuity of young boys playing invisible football – their moves, actions and reactions so perfectly choreographed as they pass and follow the imaginary ball that they must all, surely, be telepathic. I’m no football fan, but I’d wager that the ‘the beautiful game’ has never been played or portrayed so beautifully.
Of course, where there’s beauty, there’s very often pain. One singer persists in her creative insurgency by singing out loud when she’s publicly flogged. We’re also reminded of an incident which inspired the film, when a couple are buried up to their necks, and stones are thrown at their heads until they’re dead.
However, despite the pervasive presence and application of sharia law, some more colourful characters seem inexplicably able to get away with it. A woman who one can only imagine to be either mad or some kind of modern-day voodoo priestess, is pretty much allowed the run of the town, much to the bemusement of the local children, as she carries her pet chicken under her arm. She also receives visits from the city’s invaders and, either one of them in entranced or, it seems that even he, despite his faith, is not immune to the need to express his humanity through almost balletic interpretive dance.
In case there is any doubt, prohibitions are announced through the city’s dusty streets by men with megaphones, in both Bambara and Arabic. Like all invasions, however, it’s made clear what the superior language is. Bambara is used only so that it can’t be claimed that one’s Arabic isn’t good enough to understand what is forbidden. Those who do profess to speak Arabic are sometimes derided for their poor grasp of the language. However, when all else fails, Tamaseq, French, or even English will have to do.
There is no one story told but, rather, a series of glimpses into the day in the lives of ordinary people. Like all good soap operas, at the centre of it all is a beautiful love story, whose abrupt end is brought on with the murder of one simple man by another, over the killing of a cow called GPS.
Sissako somehow manages to infuse humour and beauty into the most tragic of circumstances as ordinary people find means, creative, or otherwise, to deal with the day to day of living in the face of adversity.
“Timbuktu,” in competition in this year’s London Film Festival, screens on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October.