Timbuktu is set in the Malian city of that name (albeit filmed in the director’s native Mauritania) as ISIS militants ride into town to take control. This sounds like a deeply depressing subject matter — and there certainly is a lot to be depressed by — yet the film manages to find an affecting balance between two apparently disparate emotional registers (comic and tragic). There’s a tension between these fundamentalists and their set ideas, and the reality which they face in the quietly observant population, who have little desire to change their ways — nor indeed, as their imam puts it to the fundamentalist leader, any real religious failing they need to correct. And so, as the film goes on, the wry comedy and easy laughter of the early sections — small acts of defiance towards the occupiers (a football game without a ball, singing and playing music at night) — tips towards revulsion at the way the fundamentalists push their largely pointless agenda and punish the locals. In some ways what’s most difficult to deal with, but which also allows a small potential for hope, is that everyone in the film has a basic humanity, and has reasons for acting the way they do. The ISIS leaders show a willingness to talk issues over, while also being unable to always live up to their own ideals (the leader played by Abel Jafri sneaks away to smoke a furtive cigarette at one point). Meanwhile, the locals have their faults too: one of the big dramatic arcs in the film deals with Ibrahim Ahmed’s cattle herder Kidane, who accidentally kills a fellow townsman in a petty squabble. If there’s no black-and-white judgements on display here, there is instead a certain moral clarity: bad people sometimes do decent things, and vice versa, but they still approach the world and its problems in fundamentally different ways. It’s the resistance to the occupiers’ petty bureaucratic mindset that the film valorises, and which continues to resound after the film has finished.
Director Abderrahmane Sissako; Writers Sissako and Kessen Tall; Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Ibrahim Ahmed [as “Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino”], Abel Jafri عادل جفري; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.