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December 30, 2015

Timbuktu (2014)
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Actors: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki

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Synopsis: The lives of the residents of Timbuktu, Mali, under an increasingly strict and reactionary Islamic regime.

Review: Unquestionably one of the greatest filmmakers operating in world cinema today, Abderrahmane Sissako has produced a work of staggering dramatic and ethnographic lucidity in Timbuktu – a crystal-clear ode to life in a harsh outpost of Mali, namely the northerly, desert-laden city of Timbuktu.

It’s often the case with African films that a Western audience can be unintentionally condescending, offering up synonyms of “humane” to describe the so-called ‘pitiable’ African citizens; but the greatest compliment I can pay Sissako, is that this as accomplished and sophisticated a narrative and cinematographic piece as I’ve seen in a long time. For only a ninety-minute film, the story is extremely rich, episodic and complex, and I don’t mean this in a demeaning way, but it has the qualities of a superior soap opera: it dips in and out of a group of residents in Timbuktu, acutely introducing, dramatising and summating their associated stakes and dilemmas in the new Islamist order.

The film’s ostensible critique of the militant Islamic movement which infiltrates all areas of Timbuktu society is incredibly patiently and cleverly dramatised, almost showing them to be ragtag and shambolic at times, before only branching out into the more insidious and violent end-game of their ‘jihad’ by the film’s final act.

Ethnographically the film is fascinating too. Yes, it’s an opportunity to view a rarely-seen part of the world, namely the dusty nether-regions of the north of Mali, but it’s not just an opportunity for picturesque showboating, but there’s a real power and relevance to the photographic content too. Some of the vistas offer amazing dramatic tableaux (namely the long-shot of the two characters who have just been involved in the shooting at the lake), but also document Timbuktu so clearly, and how the Islamists slowly stamp down on all the liberties on the streets and rooftops of the city – from the women trying to sell fish in the market (but crazily told to cover up their hands), and illicit musical gatherings in back-bedrooms, to the startling sequence of boys miming a game of soccer after footballs themselves are banned! This is a striking, almost gallows, visual image which summarises as a whole the ingenuity of Sissako’s rhetorical mastery. (December 2015)

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