Timbuktu (2014) dir. Abderrahmane Sissako

8/26 @ BRATTLE


Timbuktu is a succession of vignettes. It’s the animation of the list a dream makes. Through it passes linen, fishmonger, sand, cattle, recliners, artillery, imaginary soccer ball, cell phone signals, blood, song, megaphones, imam, runners, gloves, clay, jihad, four-wheel drive, cigarettes, guardians, heat, tears, netting, sky. There are no resolutions to the conflicts begetting conflicts, or codas to the song. Shots expire before anyone catches their breath.

Tamasheq is spoken by the Tuareg herdsfamily at city’s edge. Bambara, Songhai, French and English are spoken by the non-nomadic townspeople. There is a banshee who fled an earthquake in Haiti, seems impervious to the imposition of sharia law. “We are the guardians of all deeds since we arrived in this territory,” says Abdelkrim, a jihadi extremist, to an exasperated imam, Arabic translated into English on the subtrack. He and his cohort strategize the theocratic conversion of the the ancient city. At night they read in repose and without socks. By day they police, harangue, kill. Abdelkrim flirts. The assholes talk FIFA.

Sissako’s cosmopolitan plurality — the product of practice and upbringing, the director having grown up in both Mali and Mauritania before studying and producing film in Russia and France, where he now lives — lends a sort of habitable ease to every shot, a measured lack of imposition; the vérité of letting the thing let on. His frame is where people and things come and go. While a convertible identity works mostly to his advantage, the concomitant subtlety of polemic in his films has triggered significant hindrances and upsets: notably, the attempted ban of Timbuktu by the mayor of a Parisian suburb following the Charlie Hebdo shooting for sympathizing with terrorists, and more recently, the decision to cancel its screenings at the FESPACO film festival for security purposes, presumably related to Boko Haram’s influence in the region. In the thick of things, lawmakers and reactionaries condemn the equipoise of Sissako’s storytelling. To members of other circles, the same condemnation is believed to be a victory for art.

Some praise Sissako for humanizing the terrorists of his film, a poor term used to speak of giving depth to a subject; of imbuing a representation of someone or something with reason, internal conflict, and need — which Sissako does with care, though not at the expense of a judgment, however discreet. Terror, torture, violence; the horror and excitement of moral evil comes from our experience or observation of its contemporaneity with the quotidian, while luxury and boredom persist there and elsewhere — not with its fusion. Sissako cited as impetus for Timbuktu the 2012 stoning of a couple said to have had children out of wedlock by members of Ansar Dine. He recalls on this day the release of a new version of a phone on the international market, an event that seemed to absorb the media’s attention, while the couple’s story went largely unnoticed.

We watch an assault rifle’s shells splinter parts off wooden deities, a martial experiment in mereology. Just over a year has passed since ISIS proclaimed itself to be a state and a worldwide caliphate. Today marks one week since the beheading of 81-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaa, and three days since the destruction of the 2,000 year-old pre-Islamic temple Baalshamin at Palmyra. “Statues never die,” read Elisabeth Lequeret’s unfortunate sign-off flourish at the start of the year. But statues and languages do disappear, the people who study them are murdered, and with them we lose, little by little, evidence of a human grandeur, our imaginations of it, those projections and aspirations on which a shared empathy, respect, and sanity depend. Timbuktu shows in its portrayal of militants and civilians how resistance is not inherent to a nature or a culture or the essence of anyone; rather, it is learned, worked-for, communicable, as in: sung.

dir. Abderrahmane Sissako
97 min.

Part of the ongoing series: Recent Raves
Double feature w/ About Elly

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