The Tragedy Of ‘Timbuktu’
In Abderrahmane Sissako’s astonishing new film we get a chance to explore the sheer lunacy of the jihadists’ worldview from both sides. In a heartfelt polemic that uses subtlety and calm (Oliver Stone, please note) it builds a complex picture through the simplest images, via several unfolding story strands.
A herder loses a cow and the event leads to an appalling tragedy. A pretty young woman is chosen by a jihadist for his wife against her consent. A couple are accused of adultery. A girl is whipped, the couple are stoned. In this once peaceful and beautiful city their aggressors behave like dim civil servants for a regime whose arbitrary edicts they don’t have a chance of understanding or even enforcing.
When attempting to force women to don gloves (which means that the women cannot perform their work of cleaning fish), issuing lashes for playing music or confiscating footballs from children they constantly find themselves out of their league, unable to provide cogent arguments, usually hiding behind dogma, and half the time they can’t even understand each other’s dialects. The campaign of hate conducted on the thoughtful, proud populace seems doomed to back itself into a corner yet, like the mafia, thrives.
This is not a piece of obscure arthouse cinema but a grandly constructed fictional film using a real situation, more like a David Lean epic, with immense vistas and cleverly wrought changes of pace. Sissako’s visuals are sly and elegant, from the desert landscape sculpted like a woman’s naked body to the boys who you slowly realise are playing a football match without a ball.
The jihadists’s attempts to suppress human nature and recast the world in a series of Kafkaesque dead-ends would simply be grotesque if we didn’t see the sense and strength of the ordinary men and women who have to live with this. The hersdman fights back and watches his world fall apart, but accepts his fate. Nobody shouts, people listen and try to reconcile their differences, but to no avail.
But ‘Timbuktu’ is not unbearable. It’s poetic, painterly and gorgeous to look at, and in telling an age-old story of puritans attempting to crush the spirits of a nation, it manages to suggest that – in the long term, at least – this too shall pass, and joy will triumph. See it on a big screen if possible.