Remember when northern Mali was occupied by Islamic extremists? It wasn’t long ago, and it’s certainly not a neatly wrapped up situation, but you’d be excused for thinking otherwise as attention has shifted to newer disasters in the press. Abderrahmane Sissako hasn’t forgotten, his new film Timbuktu examining the impact Islamic extremists had on the city and the people in it. Despite failing to maintain the mood over the course of the film, Timbuktu is blessed with a number of outstandingly powerful scenes that expose the impact brutalism has on those standing in the way.
Nothing is overplayed in Sissako’s film. He takes a low key approach preferring to let events onscreen do the talking. Timbuktu opens with an army of extremists on motorbikes and trucks entering the city. Armed with machine guns and megaphones, they’re soon in charge patrolling the streets day and night. A number of increasingly ridiculous proclamations are issued with no dissent brooked.
Sissako wisely steers away from flamboyant set pieces and running battles in the streets. Instead, he gradually introduces a number of strands. Outside the city, there’s Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) living with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). A dispute with a local fisherman that ends in beautifully shot tragedy brings the new law down on Kidane. The same happens to singer Fatou (Fatoumata Diawara) for the crime of singing. The punishment for this usually joyous act is 40 lashes.
There are a series of standout scenes spread across the film. With football banned the local team plays anyway without a ball. Watching them moving fluidly, attempting to replicate their normal rhythms, there’s defiance and a sense of freedom robbed. Eventually, a motorbike swings by, the occupiers wandering over to make sure no one is subverting their new order.
Admirably, Timbuktu doesn’t demonise anyone. The extremists are wreaking havoc but they’re not pantomime villains. They are simply men lost to their beliefs, given in to a disenfranchisement that for many makes their new faith enticing. Nor is this an attack on Islam. The local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) argues against their actions, calmly standing tall.
The struggle comes in-between the big scenes. A heavy lull settles smothering much of the film. Despite a brilliant collection of individual scenes, the whole disappointingly adds up to less than the sum of its parts as individual moments remain isolated. Focus is also muddied as Kidane’s story comes to the fore. He’s forced to face an improvised legal system for his crime, but his crime is still a terrible one that would be punished anywhere. It jars when compared to the local inhabitants facing punishment for innocuous actions.
Timbuktu contains a number of cutting observations that reveal a terrifying picture of life in a city dangerously disrupted. Sissako can’t quite make it hang together consistently but he lands several humanist blows in response to the soulless destruction wreaked on Mali. If only it wasn’t a sight replicated so frequently.