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Cannes 2014 Highlights: TIMBUKTU

May 24, 2014

FestivalsFilm + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

Timbuktu #5

In recent years films about religion, especially Islam, have become very popular. This comes as no surprise when taking into consideration the current state of world affairs and human curiosity to learn about things we don’t necessarily understand – talking about Western cultures here. Often efforts to depict such ideals can go horribly wrong, but thankfully Timbuktu explores religion and humanity with precision and finesse.

Sissako, an experienced filmmaker and native of Mali, had a motive to make the film: educate and bring awareness to audiences worldwide. Back in July 2012 two parents were executed in Aguelhok, Mali, because they were not married. Religious fundamentalists had taken over the city and dictated their own version of justice, which was stone the couple to death. The story of Aguelhok inspired Sissako to create his newest film Timbuktu, a film in competition at the 67th Festival de Cannes.

Timbuktu portrays the namesake town and the rise of jihadist forces within. In a style somewhat reminiscent to Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) and Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), Timbuktu doesn’t have a singular protagonist but several. Characters include religious fascists, rebellious citizens, football players and musicians. However, the most focus is given to a family that lives outside Timbuktu: Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), Satima (Toulou Kiki) and Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Despite its large cast Abderrahmane Sissako manages to give each character their share of the spotlight, creating a comprehensive look at the progression of religious interference within society and how the population responds to it.

What makes the film successful is the slow pace and relentless humanity. Sissako doesn’t divulge into excessive violence or religious agenda, but rather explores the cause and effect relationship of the jihadist coup d’état. His choices, like the pace, allow the film to breathe, which makes the events seem all the more genuine and realistic. For example, one can’t help but to enjoy watching a group friends playing music and singing their hearts out (music is illegal), and see kids playing football with an imaginary ball (football is illegal too).

Timbuktu #2

Tragedy looms over Timbuktu, as the religious takeover proceeds. This makes events like the abovementioned jam session bittersweet, since we know they are breaking the law and the patrol is searching for perpetrators. But this is what makes the film stand out: its humanity. Despite breaking the law and eventually getting caught, the musicians stay true to their belief. Even when whipped – a scene almost as visceral as the one in 12 Years a Slave (2013) –, the singer breaks into song through her tears. The same strength is displayed with a female vendor, who refuses to comply with the escalating rulings of the jihadists; she’d rather be arrested than obey any longer.

Sissako’s direction is strong, as are the performances. Especially Ibrahim and Toulou deliver subtle but powerful work as fate works against them. Technically speaking the film is well thought out. The music compliments the environment and the cinematography breathes life into the small town and dunes.

Sean Ryan