Winner of the Prix du Jury at last year’s Cannes festival, Timbuktu is amonst some of the most powerful cinema that I have seen in quite some time. Telling the story of oppression and occupation in Timbuktu, Mali, as Islamists bearing the flag of ISIL invade the city; Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautiful, and actually quite cheeky film, is one that’s timely.
World cinema at its very best, the film is a transportative glimpse into a culture that is underrepresented, or rather misrepresented, in mainstream film. There’s a natural simplicity in the way Timbuktu plays out – as if Sissako held back from as much filmic manipulation as possible. What you see on screen feels authentic, to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary.
Long scenes of dialogue are allowed to develop naturally, with people constantly cutting over each other in an an attempt to have their say. The performers themselves – most of whom make their acting debut in this – feel like real people, as if they were approached in the street one day and asked if they could be filmed.
The only notion of manipulation comes from the film’s cinematography, which is stunning right down to the clothes that the characters wear. The imagery reflects the themes of the film – filled with huge landscapes, covered in pale, muted sand, there are occasional explosions of green that break out through the ground. There’s a recurring motif where the colourful and colourfuless collide, as the characters who oppose ISIL often wear bold, vibrant clothing, when compared to the plain, dark robes of the fundamentalists.
The sense of simple, stripped back filmmaking, is obviously an illusion though, and Timbuktu is almost bursting at the seams with poetic complexity and contradiction. In what’s a brave move from Sissako, the Islamists are represented as almost laughable – we see the uncertain occupiers walk around the streets of Timbuktu, as they announce through a megaphone rules such as “no football”, yet in the following sequence, we see the very same people talking passionately about the sport.
One of the fundamentalists is a secret smoker, and the use of smartphones to communicate with each other lends a visual irony to the story. In these moments, Timbuktu feels like a comedy and even has a really good ‘gag’ where the megaphone wielding rule makers are reduced to adding “any old thing” to their ever increasing list of illegal activities.
More than anything though, Timbuktu is deeply affecting and emotive, and the sense of safety that the humour creates within the film, makes the film’s most shocking moments even more so. Amongst the almost satirical stuff, there’s brutal depictions of people being stoned to death and executed, which jolts you back into the reality of the situation.
There’s some tremendously touching moments which include a woman singing defiantly as she is whipped in the middle of the city, and a group of young men playing imaginary football after its banned by ISIL. The imagery is so powerful that it’s almost seared into my brain – it’s cinema at its most unforgettable.
The strange juxtaposition between peace and violence, as well as humour and heartbreak, makes Sissako’s Timbuktu a contradiction in itself. In a way, that’s exactly what makes it such a resounding success, because all the complex contradictions make it a very real, very humanistic piece of work. It’s an incredibly beautiful film that will pull your emotions in different directions. It’s touching, shocking, current, and a bold cinematic statement that deserves to be seen by as many people as people. Be sure to seek it out before it disappears.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com