A humane look at the tragedies brought on by religious fundamentalism, Abderrahmane Sissako's fourth fiction feature is a small gem of a movie that cleverly avoids the well-intentioned tone of most message movies. Instead, the Mauritanian-born director adopts the clear-eyed tone of a village elder who has seen a lot and passes no judgment, telling his story through a patient accumulation of apparently minor details, its leisurely pace and gentle rhythms contributing to a powerfully affecting end result.
In truth, Timbuktu does have a central plot - the tragedy that befalls herding couple Satima (Toulou Kiki) and Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) when one of their cows strays - but it seems to emerge very slowly from a wealth of episodes connected only by their location in the Malian city of Timbuktu during its occupation by the Islamic fundamentalists of the Ansar Dine group. In that sense, Mr. Sissako comes across like the village elder seen gently berating the warriors that disrespect a house of prayer or discussing the finer points of Islamist interpretation.
The importance of traditions and communal culture in these isolated communities clash continually with the rigid strictures imposed from the outside, from the fishmonger who protests at having to wear gloves in public to the local madwoman walking the streets in colourful clothes while insulting the jihadis who spend much of their time discussing soccer and the talents of Zidane and Messi - though playing soccer is forbidden by their apparent random diktats. At one point, the Islamic warriors search the town for the source of the music heard floating in the distance, and when they get there they call their leader for instructions: "they're playing devotional music celebrating the Prophet. What are we to do?" - all the while a former rapper struggles with his commitment to the holy war and one of the jihadis breaks off from his duties for interpretive dancing.
In its apparently casual, unforced way, the greater picture of Timbuktu grows out of the careful juxtaposition of these vignettes, beautifully lensed and framed by DP Sofian el Fani. They create not so much a narrative as a mood, a sense of fate, of people caught up in something they can't quite fathom or understand but that is changing their world inexorably. In that sense, Mr. Sissako's film can also work as a metaphor for the delicate balancing of tradition and progress, past and future, or as a take on the idea of cultural colonialism that seems to be at heart of so much of modern-day African filmmaking.
To its credit, Timbuktu may be working within a "Western" production framework, but it's not trying to be a "Westernised" African film nor an "exotic Africa" film. Instead, it stands its ground with a quietly eloquent elegance, where the matter-of-fact handling slowly envelops you into a small-scale tragedy built out of unexpected building blocks. It's a gentle, wonderfully moving triumph.
France, Mauritania, 2014
Cast Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi A. G. Mohamed
Director Abderrahmane Sissako; screenwriters Mr. Sissako and Kessen Tall; cinematographer Sofian el Fani (colour, widescreen); composer Amin Bouhafa; designer Sébastian Birchler; costumes Ami Sow; editor Nadia ben Rachid; producers Sylvie Pialat and Mr. Sissako; production companies Les Films du Worso, Dune Vision, Arches Films, ARTE France Cinéma and Orange Studio in association with Indéfilms 2
screened May 15th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)