By Stephan Haderer (Vienna, Austria)
When the strangers arrive in their Toyotas, even the pace of the gazelle changes in Mali’s endless desert. Nothing is as it was before. The sad rhapsodies of the guitars turn silent, children stop playing soccer, and the flamboyantly dressed Bambara women are forced to cover their hands and faces. The arrival of the rebels affects everybody’s life in Timbuktu, even the lives of those who have never lived in town but who stay outside, in the Tuareg desert camps or at the shore of the rivers.
Timbuktu (2014) is the story of Kessen Tall and Abderrahman Sissako, who also directed the film in the enchanting but somehow bewitched landscape of the Mauritanian Sahara. Timbuktu is also the story of a country whose heterogeneous cultures – Tuaregs, Bembaras and Arabs – clash, a story of power and violence, of conquest and surrender. Finally, however, it is the story of individuals: Of a nomadic Tuareg family, for instance, whose greatest joy is a pregnant cow named “GPS”, their polar star which is supposed to give them orientation in a region beginning to fall apart; or of an African fisherman called Amadou, whose biggest concern is the shepherd boy Issan, who disturbs him from catching fish for his family whenever he goads the Tuaregs’ cattle through the river sparkling under the unbearably hot African sun; or of the jihadist Abdelkarim (Abel Jafri), who wants to spread his group’s ideology by force but who still needs to learn how to drive a Toyota.
Like his comrades, he has just arrived from far away to conquer Timbuktu, an isolated town of dreary loam houses where the impoverished Bembara-speaking population struggles to survive. Tourism has stopped since the Islamic conquest, and the only reminder is the souvenir stand of an eccentric native lady, who refuses to surrender to the rebels harassing and intimidating the locals with a number of bans and severe dress code restrictions.
The story unfolds in violence when Issan fails to keep the Tuareg father Kidane’s (Ibrahim Ahmed) cattle off Amadou’s fishing nets and Amadou kills Kidane’s greatest possession, the family’s pregnant cow GPS. Kidane ends up in a fight with Amadou and, unexpectedly, Amadou gets shot during their fight in the water. The Islamist militias and new lawmakers quickly find out about the murder and arrest Kidane, who prays for forgiveness for the sake of his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Waled Mohamed), who would become an orphan. But forgiveness and mercy do not exist anymore in Timbuktu – neither for alleged murderers nor for women singing or calling their boyfriends on a cellphone. The punishment is cruel and Sissako doesn’t spare the audience from the brutality it involves. The movie has a sudden and almost heart-tearing climax and an open ending, leaving the viewers almost relived when the blackout and movie credits interrupt his final poetic image.
Timbuktu may not be a story of many words but it certainly is a memorable tale of actions and images, of silent and untold emotions. The film, nominated for the Palme d’Or in Cannes and the 87th Academy Award in the category Best Foreign Language Film, is able to capture viewers from far away because of its crude but extremely poetic and sometimes quite satirical language, accompanied by Amine Bouhafa’s melancholic tunes. Mauritanian-born director Sissako once again manages to take the critical audience on a journey to a remote place and leave us both deeply moved and shocked by the dramatic events reflecting the realities of many African people today.