*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Islam is a topic frequently viewed through a limited lens in contemporary cinema, particularly what is produced by and catered to North Americans. Such is not the case with Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s first feature film in 7 years. For audiences accustomed to seeing demonized, one-note portrayals of a small, extremist faction of Muslims on screen, Timbuktu’s insight into the religion feels like a momentous breath of fresh air. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria, the latter of which is still sidelined by mainstream media, it’s hard to think of a moment when conversations about Muslims and their relationship to fundamentalism would have been timelier than now. Sissako has said he was inspired to make Timbuktu a few years ago, when he opined the lack of attention given to the stoning of an unmarried Malian couple, who were charged with adultery. Timbuktu is his attempt at dramatizing their story, along with other paralleling plots, and it’s a rich, politically nuanced, and painterly portrait of life in rural Mali.
Timbuktu‘s kaleidoscopic structure cross-cuts between the unmarried couple and a large cast of characters connected by the virtue of their geographical proximity. A man, his wife, and daughter pass their days in a tent, taking care of their small herd of eight cows. A fisherman sets up his nets in the same lake as the cows drink. Islamic militants force themselves onto public spaces in nearby towns, making announcements about religiously acceptable behaviour. A local imam pleads with the mujahedeen to refrain from violence in the community. Local women fight against fanatical intolerance as kids fight for their passion for football. All these stories are loosely tied by a tenuous link to the decentralized and vigilante local justice system. Timbuktu‘s first half is devoted to running these paralleling narratives in rapidly cut, short segments, but the film never loses its fluidity as the dots begin to connect and the characters inch closer toward one another.
As Sissako traverses between stories, languages, and religions, the tone of the film shifts as well. A sequence in the first half shows a group of young boys playing football without a ball, because having footballs, or any element of earthly joy, is banned by the local militia. The boys play as though they’re unaware of the absence of the ball, passionately tackling and celebrating, thus giving this sequence quite an incantatory feel. This scene is immediately succeeded by one in which the audience witnesses a murder. The gruesome display is shot in a lush, extreme long shot. Its awe-inspiring beauty is at stark odds with the violence at its heart.