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Timbuktu - BFI London Film Festival 2014

Monday 24 November 2014, by Abla Kandalaft

Cannes favourite Timbuktu is Abderrahmane Sissako’s depiction of the Malian city’s brief occupation by Ansar Dine militias in 2012.

Kidane, a Tuareg , has settled with his wife, daughter and a young shepherd he looks after, in the dunes just outside Timbuktu, hoping to steer clear of the invading jihadists. They live in relative peace, herding cows, until Kidane confronts a fisherman responsible for killing one of his cows; tragedy ensues and Kidane comes up against the chaotic, obtuse and violent justice system newly and poorly cobbled together by the Ansar Dine fighters. Around this somewhat central thread, are a series of vignettes showing life under occupation in Timbuktu. The fighters wander around aimlessly, making up laws as they go along and banning various things at random – singing, football, wearing socks, showing one’ hands. They appear bored, clearly conflicted about what exactly they are fighting for, disorganised, uncultured but sadly, and importantly, armed. And therefore dangerous.

Sissako eschews hysteria and instead offers his audience a sober and humanising portrait of the fighters. When speaking about the film, he insists that these groups don’t materialise in a vacuum and instead of frenzied condemnation, there should be a rational discussion about the root causes of their success: poverty, the breakdown of social and economic structures, the lack of input from the authorities in Bamako and so on. Sissako’s approach to filmmaking is both stylish and economical. He creates those concise, at times silent, visually stunning vignettes to depict realities that are too often told in laborious and heavy-handed ways.

There is a scene in which a jihadist dances on his own. He is clearly an accomplished dancer and derives great pleasure from the ritual. Sissako explained that this dance was in some ways a physical expression of the man’s doubts about his current chosen path, of the humanity still within him rebelling against what he has chosen to inflict upon himself and others. Another scene sees Malian statues and artefacts being shot at, clearly ancient and of enormous cultural and historical value. It is a surprisingly violent moment to watch, because it encapsulates so much; the disdain and lack of understanding that these fighters – often mercenaries – have for the culture and the identity of those countries and regions they proclaims themselves masters of and the annihilation of history through these objects and remains that have survived countless wars and thousands of years, by way of modern weaponry.

The rhythm and pace, the long shots of the Malian landscape and Sissako’s use of music, all contribute to make Timbuktu a film that invites its viewers in, never imposing itself, stimulating discussion, reflection and genuine debate. It succeeds both artistically and politically.

Here’s Abderrahmane Sissako’s Screen Talk at the BFI (with me translating!)

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