What is a protest film? Is it a film that shouts its proclamations from the rooftops, with all the anger and blood and fury of an Old Testament God? Is it a film with a direct message that clearly illustrates everything wrong with the world? Many films made with protest in mind reflect these qualities, but these films can also be perfectly peaceful, calm, and humane; films of meditation that channel the anger and injustice through visual poetry.
Abderrahmane Sissako has always preferred the calm way. His previous feature film, Bamako, now almost a decade old, was a moving film about the deplorable influence of the IMF and Western corporatism on African society. It used a variety of techniques to make its point; Bamako was structured like an essay film, and used docudrama, parody, and symbolism to argue its case, whilst all throughout remaining a perfectly calm, meditative film, and all the more effective for it.
Sissako’s latest film, Timubktu, follows in much of the same vein. He depicts the life of a small desert town, presumably the titular one, after it has been overrun by a fundamentalist Islamic group. Within this he also weaves a story about a Tuareg herdsman, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and his family. One day, one of Kidane’s most beloved cows charges into a fisherman’s nets, destroying them and being killed in return. In vengeance Kidane kills the fisherman. This story, moving as it is, is just one of many different strands in the film, and only appears to be the central story by virtue of being the one Sissako marginally affords the most screen time. We see how the jihadist regime gradually grows more brutal in the town; initially they are quite meek and fairly incompetent, incapable of any real legitimacy in a town where their only claim to power is a gun. However, as Timbuktu lingers on, their threats and decrees get more vicious and violent. Women are whipped publically for playing music and men for playing football. An adulterous couple is stoned to death.
Sissako frequently shows up the jihadists for the hypocrites that they are, proclaiming one rule for the populace and another for themselves in scenes that produce a gentle, disarming humour throughout the film. Sissako also refuses to reduce the jihadists to cartoon villains. They are, on some deep level, humans too. They have doubts about their mission here. They aren’t as convinced as they might wish to be (one recruit makes a video in which he renounces his previous life, but is scolded when he can’t deliver his message with the necessary conviction). They are frequently clueless about the teachings of the Quran, and regularly challenged by the local imam, yet they are also capable of sympathy on an individual level. Some are cruel and heartless people, others appear to be lost souls who have drifted into a violent philosophy and still have some kindness within them, such as one figure who takes pity on Kidane’s wife and treats her with some degree of compassion. The jihadists are comprised of people from all over the world, and in a town whose inhabitants freely switch from French to Bambara to Tamasheq to Arabic, linguistic confusions are plenty, contributing to their lack of human empathy in a lot of cases. After all, when detached via an emotionless translator, languages can lose their nuance and subtlety: how are we meant to communicate and stand our ground when we cannot even understand what our interlocutor is saying?
Kidane’s story in all this serves as a grounding. He and his family are one of the few characters given enough screen time to establish themselves as people. Timbuktu‘s most beautiful scenes revolve around his family life, and despite the hard times that have fallen upon them they appear to be perfectly happy to simply be in each other’s presence. That their life is undone by an act of petty revenge is also the film’s most powerful statement, and Sissako depicts the murder of the fisherman in a quite incredible feat of camerawork – we see a huge wide shot of the river, with Kidane struggling over to the other side and the victim’s body lying limp on the far end of the screen. The isolation, the pain, and the stillness of such an act are communicated so directly through this one simple scene that to cut away from it feels both merciful and almost untruthful.
Timbuktu is the first ever Mauritanian film to receive a nomination for best foreign-film Oscar (and I believe, though I may be wrong, the first African country outside of Algeria to do the same), and on the strength of this viewing it is a deserving nomination. Though I feel the film is a bit guilty of having too few strong characters – most of the actors in this film serve as little more than vessels for the director’s commentary on jihadist rule – Sissako’s languid, calming style ensures that Timbuktu is quite compelling throughout; so calm and clear is its message that one cannot fail not to be moved at least a little.