QFF 2015: Timbuktu

Multiple factions
Under an extreme lens
Resentment resigned
Before benevolence -
A lost face

For all the telling of a timely tale – timely used in the modern sense of something we should be presently afraid of – Timbuktu is a rather soft film, or more accurately perhaps a film of softening one’s guard. Before, for, and in spite of another in the face of inhuman religious stricture and overbearing yet spasmodic violence – a reality chillingly normalised. Following characters in and around a village (Timbuktu, Mali) that has recently come under the occupation of ISIL extremists seeking to impose sharia law, the picture plays at once as a survey and eulogy for hope not dead but withered and withering away.

The picture weaves multiple stories and characters into its rich narrative tapestry, most notably Kidane, a cattle herder who lives outside the city with his wife and daughter. One day, upon learning that his prized cow has been killed, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Both before and after this outwardly dramatic yet diffusely played event, there is a series of smaller scenes (tableaux even) that at once establish a lifestyle foreign to most audiences and, as it happens, alien to the citizens themselves; a female fishmonger is forced to wear gloves, all music is banned, a group is forced to play soccer without a ball, a daughter is taken for marriage and a local imam tries to talk the extremists away from violence. It is very much implementation, reaction and judgement of a new rule, with characters being sentenced to lashes and stoning for breaking the law.

With its incredibly hard to watch material, Timbuktu employs a diffuse shooting style – image and sound perhaps softened by the winding dunes and Edenic trees that are so much the landscape, allowing us to see more clearly. This reviewer must admit that, expecting, dreading explosive violence at all times (he had seen very little else), he was met with grim and as yet unseen process – disseminating and destroying but not without brief flashes of humanity breaking back. The extremists hang like a spectre over the city, slowly firming their grip, yet we also see scenes featuring their doubts and contradictions. Co-writer and director Abderrahmane Sissako and cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s photography is exquisitely beautiful, capturing shots of the sunlight glare off a lake shimmering through a man’s body, a woman veiled watching a man walk away, two figures parting from each other in the swash of a lake after an act of confused violence and, most heartbreakingly, Kidane’s daughter and the young shepherd of his cattle discovering a landscape now fractured unto them. Gesture and movement and poise are accentuated in the viewer’s mind in the midst of clear and present danger, taken on as ritual rebellion and resignation.

The performances from the large cast are excellent. The blankness of faces portending nothing but what they’ve learnt to expect. For as much as Timbuktu resists capital-I Importance, it increases in urgency. A film that lets us see from the perspective of the ‘other’ (all distinctions made) is one that demands to be watched and re-watched. Sissako ends on a brutal-before-predictable misdirect. The presence and actualization of grace as much a possibility as the continuation of violence – both doors open as if they can never truly be shut.

Timbuktu screened at the inaugural Queensland Film Festival, at New Farm Cinemas from July 24–26, 2015.

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