Director (and co writer) Aderrahmane Sissako opens Timbuktu with a bounding gazelle being chased through the desert by a truck full of soldiers. The animal seems to be evading the rifle fire, streaming through the dunes, until one of the soldiers shouts, 'don't kill it, just tire it.' In a small town of Mali outside of Timbuktu, a fundamentalist militia has seized control and introduced sharia law. Sissako examines the slow strangulation of the cultural and religious diversity of the town.
Timbuktu, which is based on real events, essentially extinguishes the colour and life out of the town and people of Mali. AK47 toting troops stalk the town with loud speakers barking multilingual orders about the appropriate garb for women, the banning of music, football and even smoking. Sissako and his co-writers Kessen Tall do a tremendous job of using the women of the town to be the voice of reason and defiance. When a woman in the market that's selling fish is instructed to wear woollen gloves to conceal her hands she cries out to those barking the orders that it's an absolutely ridiculous idea. In addition to that one of the young militants goes and asks a mother for permission to marry his daughter, she utterly dismisses it with the line (to paraphrase) "but you're a stranger." It's clear that the imposition of these customs will happen if they like it or not. Sissako devastates when a soulful angel singing along to the strums of the guitar and fiddle are extinguished by soldiers breaking the door down to make it stop. The vibrance of that song brought you back to what the town must have been like pre occupation. Sissako twists the knife further by having her sing to herself as she's receiving her forty lashes.
While the foot soldiers are overtly dishing out the orders, in private they're still discussing the football they're no longer allowed to play/watch and they're still puffing away on a cigarette when they feel like it. The ranks are fearful of the consequences of standing up to their new masters but they're flagrant hypocrites. Sissako though is not anti-muslim, in fact the voice of reason and respect for the entire film is the Sheik that called Mali his home long before the oppressors. On more than one occasion he begs for respect and diplomacy, all to deaf or manipulative ears.
While the infiltration and monitoring of the town forms the context for the film, it's the life of farmer Kidane, his wife Satima and daughter Toya that studies how the oppressive cloud over their region begins to alter the way they perceive life and morality. Satima is performed beautifully, unflinching in her poise towards the conquerers. Toya follows her mother's lead; she's tough yet warm. Kidane is brimming with insecurity and anxiety that one of the generals in this little army continues to visit his encampment in the dunes to speak with Satima when he's absent. Kidane is not a fighter, he's a rural man that is more at home with a guitar than an assault rifle. When one of his cows is killed by a fisherman whose nets get trampled, instead of going and attempting to talk out the grievance, Kidane completely transfers the inadequacy and fear of the new regime to his anger with a situation within the realms of his control. It's in the confrontation scene that Sissako's composition will just silence you. From this moment, threats are no longer idle. You're forced to endure the consequences in all their horror.
The story is what draws you in, but there are whole sections of this film that Sissako's directorial choices feel as conservative as Mali's captors.
Timbuktu is frightening and frustrating viewing. You're watching the noose tighten over an entire town, and at times, it will cause you to gasp.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by:Aderrahmane Sissako Written by: Aderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri