Islam is a topic frequently viewed through a limited lens in contemporary cinema, particularly what is produced by and catered to North Americans. Such is not the case with Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s first feature film in 7 years. For audiences accustomed to seeing demonized, one-note portrayals of a small, extremist faction of Muslims on screen, Timbuktu’s insight into the religion feels like a momentous breath of fresh air. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria, the latter of which is still sidelined by mainstream media, it’s hard to think of a moment when conversations about Muslims and their relationship to fundamentalism would have been timelier than now. Sissako has said he was inspired to make Timbuktu a few years ago, when he opined the lack of attention given to the stoning of an unmarried Malian couple, who were charged with adultery. Timbuktu is his attempt at dramatizing their story, along with other paralleling plots, and it’s a rich, politically nuanced, and painterly portrait of life in rural Mali.
Timbuktu‘s kaleidoscopic structure cross-cuts between the unmarried couple and a large cast of characters connected by the virtue of their geographical proximity. A man, his wife, and daughter pass their days in a tent, taking care of their small herd of eight cows. A fisherman sets up his nets in the same lake as the cows drink. Islamic militants force themselves onto public spaces in nearby towns, making announcements about religiously acceptable behaviour. A local imam pleads with the mujahedeen to refrain from violence in the community. Local women fight against fanatical intolerance as kids fight for their passion for football. All these stories are loosely tied by a tenuous link to the decentralized and vigilante local justice system. Timbuktu‘s first half is devoted to running these paralleling narratives in rapidly cut, short segments, but the film never loses its fluidity as the dots begin to connect and the characters inch closer toward one another.
As Sissako traverses between stories, languages, and religions, the tone of the film shifts as well. A sequence in the first half shows a group of young boys playing football without a ball, because having footballs, or any element of earthly joy, is banned by the local militia. The boys play as though they’re unaware of the absence of the ball, passionately tackling and celebrating, thus giving this sequence quite an incantatory feel. This scene is immediately succeeded by one in which the audience witnesses a murder. The gruesome display is shot in a lush, extreme long shot. Its awe-inspiring beauty is at stark odds with the violence at its heart.
Sissako employs absurdist humor to deal with some of the more challenging elements of his film—particularly with respect to Islamic extremism and how it can often be a socio-economic construct, rather than a religious one. Nowhere is this funnier or more incisive than the scene wherein Sissako deconstructs the intimidating video message recordings from fundamentalist rebels, reducing them to a hilarious tête-à-tête between an elder fighter and a younger apprentice whose shaky beliefs in the religion and his mission make for a forced, awkward appearance in front of the camera. These acute tonal shifts neither disrupt the harmony of Timbuktu’s webbed narrative nor diminish Sissako’s keen insight.
What is particularly interesting about Timbuktu is that Sissako finds moments of tenderness and sheer emotional power without sanding the rough edges of his story. A father’s tearful admission of love to his daughter and the soulful singing of a woman while she’s being stoned don’t come across as saccharine devices designed to add humanity to a bleak story that needs it. This is partly indebted to the entire cast’s sensational performances who elevate their characters above archetypes even in the smallest roles, such as the slyly frustrated assistant and driver to the leader of the jihadis. More importantly, Timbuktu’s procession of events doesn’t set the audience up for side-taking, even though there is eventual contempt for the inhumane atrocities committed by the extremists. This isn’t to say Sissako humanizes those who practice stoning and arm-slaying of innocent people, only that he affords them the opportunity to sketch their characters in complicated grey areas, occupied not just by unwavering monstrosity, but also beliefs, doubts, and human intricacies.
Sissako thus achieves a level of genuine poignancy not simply because he is a true master of form at the peak of his career, but also because he understands the texture of the society and the nuances and complexities of a religion as broad in its variety of adherents as Islam. Timbuktu is neither an outsider’s black-and-white vision of the implications of extremism in that region of the world, nor is it a defiant attempt at showing the other of the side of the coin. There are no token characters and no fairy-tales designed merely to make points. These stories are realities that Sissako painfully feels and keenly understands. Through the filmmaker’s poetic vision and rich grasp of the milieu, Timbuktu becomes politically perceptive and emotionally authentic, depicting visceral trauma without hysterics and eye-opening truths without didacticism.