Some movies need time and distance to establish themselves and prove their greatness. Timbuktu only needs 17 minutes to establish itself as a masterwork.
The scene is simple: A dune, four characters, spare dialogue, and little action. Satima (Toulou Kiki) and her daughter, Toya (Layla Walet), are washing their hair when a jihadist and his translator approach. These dunes are home to Satima, Toya, and Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), their husband and father, who is off with his cattle herd, something the jihadist is well aware of as he approaches. He has come here to flirt with Satima, and it is not the first time. Satima is not interested, and worse, doesn’t treat the jihadist with any fear, curtly telling him to not look at things that upset him when he tells her to cover her head. The scene becomes one of tension as the jihadist silently contemplates his available actions before deciding on a graceful exit to the encounter. This contemplation plays in a master shot with no accompanying score, effectively emasculating the jihadist’s position and any potential threat he might represent. It is a phenomenal scene that announces that what follows will be equally phenomenal.
Timbuktu is the latest film from Abderrahmane Sissako, one of the few African filmmakers to garner international attention and acclaim (Timbuktu was nominated for Best Foreign Film). The movie is set in the West African city and based on actual events from 2012 and 2013, notably, death by stoning of an adulterous couple.
At the start of the picture, the village has just become occupied by Islamists under the flag of ISIL. They rule the village by enforcing various laws—no music or singing, women must wear gloves and socks at all times, no hanging around outside, no soccer—but the villagers aren’t very compliant with the new rules. One woman refuses to wear the gloves, the villagers play imaginary soccer with no ball, and they gather at night to sing songs. For the first half of the movie, these jihadists are less like bloodthirsty terrorists and more like the new regional manager that nobody likes. In the second half, their brutality and the law of the land are exercised, but almost with the same distance and apathy.
Timbuktu opens with an image of a gazelle racing through the desert, the jihadist chasing it down in a jeep, firing semi-automatic rifles, but not at it. One of the men yells, “Don’t kill it. Tire it out.” A similar image closes the movie (with tragic implications), but it is also the metaphor that applies to the entirety of the movie. For many Americans, terrorism is something that is very real and very scary, something that has happened unexpectedly and will happen again at any moment. But that threat is still “out there.” For the residents of Timbuktu, terrorism is a day-to-day activity. The jihadists that occupy this dusty village threaten violence and reign down rules and regulations, slowly tightening the noose around the locals’ necks until it finally suffocates them. They fought and lost, first their freedom and then their hope. And now, they are just too tired to fight anymore.
Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako
Produced by: Etienne Comar & Sylvie Pialat
Written by: Abderrahmane Sissako & Kessen Tall
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Fatoumata Diawara
Cohen Media Group, Rated PG-13, Running time 97 minutes, Opening March 13, 2015.