2015 is proving to be a great year for creatively named animals in cinema. First Noah Baumbach gave us the diamond idea of naming twin kittens Good Cop and Bad Cop in While We’re Young, and now Abderrahmane Sissako’s extraordinary Timbuktu comes armed with a cow affectionately named GPS. This whimsical affectation is surely the only connective tissue between the two films and is certainly the most whimsical thing about Sissako’s, which ranks as one of the year’s most quietly devastating without ever pandering to melodrama or sentimentality. Indeed, the film’s contemplative silences are almost too much at times; the wrought, barefaced injustices depicted cry out all the louder for it.
Set during Ansar Dine’s 2012 armed occupancy of the Malian capital, Sissako’s film presents itself as a calm, collected and wholly outraged summation of fundamentalism, appearing at first to be meandering and episodic, only for it’s airy scenes to draw together into tighter focus as a central tragedy unifies the narrative. Said tragedy involves that poor cow GPS, owned by impoverished cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a devout man who lives from the land with his loving wife (Toulou Kiki) and cherished daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). An act of hotheaded retaliation brings Kidane and his family directly into the gaze of Ansar Dine, who are seen in various guises throughout the film, imposing their will on the citizens, performing jihad and enacting justice on those they see fit.
Sissako’s gaze at first appears distant – the edges of his frames suggest the vast open spaces of the nearby desert and scenes are occasionally captured from the middle distance, or at least some level of remove – but as the film progresses it becomes clear that the same cannot be said of the film emotionally. Timbuktu is a considered pierce of work. This patience and intelligence reinforces the kick of the emotional responses that are triggered. Sissako decries Ansar Dine and their arbitrary, hypocritical intolerance; witness for instance a nonsensical command for a fish monger to perform her work with gloved hands. Elsewhere, one of the fundamentalist enforcers is caught in a lie, his driver confiding that he knows his master sneaks away to smoke cigarettes – one of many unlawful acts. The master, Adelkerim (Abel Jafri), denies the accusation, but the scene is permeated by a sense of exposure. At every turn, the concrete veneer of Ansar Dine cracks until it appears like nothing more than a house of cards perpetuated by bullies.
One standalone scene sees a young man preparing to record a video in which he denounces his former life as a rap musician now that he has found the true path with Ansar Dine. Yet he lacks sincerity and the camera operator interrupts and even instructs him on how to sound more resolute. Despite appearances, the scene says, there is a pronounced lack of conviction, be it soulful or intellectual. Sissako undermines the fundamentalist by making him, simply, human.
Another such instance occurs when a patrol are sent searching the alleyways of the city for the source of some unlawful music. On discovering the source, the jihadist also discovers that the music being played is in service of prayer to Allah. He radios to his superiors for guidance; does the offence still warrant arrest? Sissako leaves the conundrum unresolved. On the one hand this could seem similar to a child’s playground riddling, but in actuality it feels like a far more deliberate and wry attack on a system of fear and control that operates against the principles of faith or even basic logic.
The film’s finest moment – and this will stand as one of the year’s greatest scenes of all – sees a group of children simulating a football game with no ball. They dodge and weave, creating their own drama, reacting together in a shared dream of a real game; something outlawed by their extremist overseers. It’s a shining moment in modern film. Defiance. Protest. Imagination. Movement. Play. All are celebrated in this wonderful scene. A pure moment of cinema, and for this alone Timbuktu ought to be remembered.
Yet there is more to celebrate than this fulcrum. For while the above examples sear Timbuktu in the mind as a multifaceted deconstruction of fundamentalism, Sissako’s film is deeply humanistic. It achieves this in spite of the aesthetic detachment through the pitch perfect naturalistic performances. An extended scene in the middle of the film finds Kidane in a three-way conversation with a senior Ansar Dine member who has him under arrest. The multi-lingual conversation that takes place here is restrained but heart-wrenching. Key to all of it is the tremendous work by all three actors, not least Ahmed as Kidane, whose piety throughout the story is in sharp contrast to the controlling forces imposing their will on the city’s inhabitants.
Occasionally Sissako is overly blunt. The shooting of Malian artefacts at the film’s opening is quite on the nose, while the stoning of two citizens later on sticks out as a sensationalist moment in a film that is otherwise judiciously reserved. But these are the exceptions to the rule and they themselves can be argued for and against. The more languid overall approach will not suit all viewers. Sissako moves at his own determined pace, confident in its eventual success. If it all sounds like a lot of hard work then know that Sofian El Fani’s photography and Amine Bouhafa’s contemplative score are both quite remarkable and in tandem give Timbuktu a lot of lift, more than enough to position it outside of the misery-porn this could all so easily appear to be.
There is a fury here, but it is kept for the most part behind the camera. In front of it, events transpire with crushing inevitability. The kind that delivers whispering body blows meaning that Timbuktu will linger long in the memory.