Timbuktu is sparse, meditative storytelling which barely conceals its anger at religious totalitarianism and nihilistic barbarism.

The film is one in which personal tragedy painfully intersects with larger politico-religious transformations which are taking place; an accidental murder involving a cattle herder Kidane (played with quiet dignity by Ibrahim Ahmed) coincides with the Islamist takeover of Mali, and the imposition of its quasi-medieval legal code.

One of the director Abderrahmane Sissako’s achievements is to show just how parochial and oppressive the injunctions of this sort of Sharia are: from women having to cover their hands and feet, and men having to roll up their trouser legs, to a new prohibition on people standing outside their own homes. Amongst the enforcers of this stringent law, hypocrisy and double standards abound.

Timbuktu’s set pieces are particularly memorable: people sing proudly, hauntingly, in their homes, in defiance of a ban on music. Another segment depicts a group of young men playing football without a ball because the sport has been outlawed. They run around miming their game, like some kind of balletic dumb-show. The match is a complex symbol of resistance, social imagination, and the negative of a law which forbids them from having fun. Out of proscription comes celebration, streaming around the dusty pitch in football shirts of every different colour.

Sofian El Fani’s camera work is exemplary throughout, moving seamlessly from wide-framed landscapes to an intimate focus on the human face and its expressions (the latter is unsurprising given his close-up work in Blue is the Warmest Colour). The sonic landscape is similarly sparse and expansive, akin to the stretches of field, desert, water and shadow depicted on screen. There is something (and I hesitate with the implications of the word) elemental about the film; and, this is reinforced later by the introduction of ritual witchcraft which points to an older, indigenous culture— uneasily coexisting with Islam.

In fact, what is striking is how culturally distinct the jihadi occupiers in the film are from the people they are oppressing; there are numerous translators and intermediaries required to communicate between the different people. The new enforcers do not speak the local language, they only speak Arabic, and seemingly know little of native traditions. What’s more, the takeover represents a schism with the past, starting again from a nihilistic blank. To watch this film is to be continually reminded of Edmund Burke’s comments concerning the French Revolution and the Jacobins’ desire to reconstruct society according to new principles, with no respect for the accumulated strata of history and culture.

All this, perhaps, makes the film sound far more drily political and symbolic than it actually is; Sissako’s triumph is to powerfully depict the politico-religious transformations through the experiences of a single family, and local community. This is humane, complex, beautiful film-making of the highest order.

Timbuktu was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 10th August, 2015.

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Writers: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Stars: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki
Runtime: 97 mins
Country: France, Mauritania

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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