A tracking shot of a gazelle running across the northern Mali desert. Shattering gunshots. A van of men is chasing the beast, concerned not to kill, but to exhaust and capture it. More gunshots: traditional wooden statues are blown to bits in the sand.
These armed marauders are jihadists arriving from Libya and other countries into Azawad, the region of Mali in which Abderrahmane Sissako’s new film Timbuktu is located. They don’t speak the local languages (particularly Tamasheq, a Tuareg dialect) and so use translators and a mixture of Arabic, Bambara, French and English in order to ensure that women wear gloves and socks, that men roll up their trouser legs, and to ban, inter alia, football, music, smoking, loitering in the streets and sitting on one’s doorstep. Woe betide anyone who breaks these arbitrarily-imposed laws; it’s lashes, stoning or a gunshot for them.
Except that these jihadists are hypocrites. They are unmoved by the peaceful protestations of a local imam. They love football (discussing the relative merits of Zidane and Messi), they dance to imaginary music at the house of Haitian madwoman Zabou and they illegally force local girls into marriage. Even they seem unconvinced, as one jihadist tries to explain on video how he gave up rap for holy war. Ringleader Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) both smokes and courts Satima, wife of Kidane, without acknowledging the error of his ways.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and Satima (Toulou Kiki) live on the outskirts of town with their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and orphan Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). Theirs is a warm family life comprising tea, relaxation and music, although Issan works hard herding their eight cattle, especially one amusingly called GPS.
Until, that is, GPS wanders into the nets of lake fisherman Amadou (Omar Haidara), who angrily kills the cow with a spear. It would appear that technologies like GPS may well allow humans to know the cow’s position, but that does not help much in terms of stopping the cow from being… a cow.
The death of GPS results in Kidane confronting Amadou, a gun tucked away in his clothes. Their encounter leads to the destruction of Kidane’s family, and towards a tragic ending which suggests that Toya might be the jihadists’ gazelle prey.
While Timbuktu has a storyline, the film consists mainly of vignettes, which in their juxtaposition give the film an abstract feel. This abstraction is reinforced by Sissako’s painterly eye (shots of Kidane and his family in their tent), and by his cinematic sensibility (unlike a painting, no still image could convey the power of kids playing soccer with an imaginary football, or the unforgettable wide shot as Amadou and Kidane part ways at the lake).
This abstract aspect is further reinforced by the fact that, unlike Sissako’s last film, Bamako, which at least references real-world institutions such as the IMF in suggesting Mali and Africa’s contemporary situation, Timbuktu makes no concrete reference to real events.
Neither the recent Tuareg rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the in-fighting with militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, nor the destruction of some of Timbuktu’s historic shrines and priceless library archives in 2012 are consciously nodded to.
Not mentioned in the film, and horribly under-reported in the (Western) media, this context might therefore remain unknown to (Western) audiences of Timbuktu. Sissako doesn’t even mention these events as inspiration for the film in the Cannes 2014 press kit, instead citing the stoning of a couple for having had children out of wedlock in distant Aguelhok. The abstraction, therefore, is deliberate. But why?
As in Bamako, Sissako’s remarkable framing is reinforced by the colours of fabrics, adobe architecture, and the way in which space is striated by lines – phone lines over a courtyard in Bamako, shadows of bars over a prison yard in Timbuktu. Technology and the law abstract humans from each other (GPS creates conflict), imposing lines and borders – where, in reality, there are none.
Nature and the all too human
But this abstraction is not divinely imposed. It is, rather, very human. In both Bamako and Timbuktu phones play a key role, here with Toya reaching up to heaven with her mobile in hope of an answer regarding Kidane’s fate. Heaven remains silent.
Meanwhile, in various other shots, the folds of the dunes hide and reveal characters, the desert’s vast and unpredictable spread both reflecting and influencing the spread of militant fervour in the region. As the place becomes the playground of jihadists, we see that both the desert and fundamentalism swallow up the people of Timbuktu.
Sissako’s film is deceptively simple. Look a bit harder, though, and shots of a donkey crossing a penalty area or of heads emerging from bodies buried in the sand are complex: the people of Timbuktu are juxtaposed with both nature and a paradoxically inhuman/abstract but man-made law. Sissako focuses on the contradictions that entail when a human is caught in a place that is being used as an explosive, abstracted political football.
Legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré described Timbuktu as being “right at the heart of the world”. Touré is right, as Sissako makes a film set in the desert, and yet which is about both the world and the heart. He does this by presenting human characters who are abstracted them from their context (no mention of the Tuareg rebellion and so on), which in turn allows us to reflect upon the way in which political/politicised violence is itself a form of abstraction (humans see each other not as humans, but as insiders or outsiders of whatever particular cause they claim to fight for).
In contrast to the abstraction that is political/politicised violence, Sissako’s abstract, beautiful and humanist cinema tells us that wherever there is a human heart, then there is indeed the world.