The first Mauritanian film to be nominated for an Oscar, Timbuktu is a quietly powerful multilingual effort that almost feels like a darkly comedic satire for its first act or so, lulling you into a false sense of security before the tone shifts and the noose tightens.
Set in 2012 or thereabouts and released internationally in 2014 and 2015, it’s taken a while to get here, surely due to its subtly angering and unsettling edges, but make no mistake: this is quite the masterwork.
The city of Timbuktu in Mali has been occupied by jihadists wanting to enforce Sharia law. They’re a dangerous and petty bunch of gun-toting men who have discovered, to their considerable frustration, that the place is mostly populated by peaceful Muslims already (when they enter a temple with their firearms an imam scolds them, saying they should go and “do jihad” elsewhere).
Therefore they set about enforcing arbitrary rules that co-writer and director Abderrahmane Sissako ensures look fairly ridiculous; a man is scolded for having pants that are too long (he’s forced to remove them altogether and walk home); a ball is confiscated so the local lads play a soccer match with an imaginary ball; a woman selling fish is harangued for not wearing gloves in public; and eventually the jihadist commands (via a loudspeaker) include the subtitle promise that “any old thing” is forbidden.
This almost seems funny at times, but the threat is there, especially when Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) keeps visiting Satima (Toulou Kiki) when her herdsman husband Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) isn’t home. Such horny rule-breaking is only part of the jihadists’ hypocrisy, as Sissako shows them speeding about on motorbikes, making recruitment videos, imbibing Western medicines and more, none of which are exactly permitted under Sharia law, and they’re hardly a brave bunch too and are frequently scared by the wild and enraged behaviour of a freakily-dressed ‘witch’ (Kettly Noël). But they have machine guns, so they feel brave anyway.
Things turn harsher when Kidane violently argues with a local fisherman (leading to a beautifully drawn-out very-long-shot), an unmarried couple are caught enjoying a little guitar-playing (music is forbidden!) and more, as the fundamentalists clamp down. And if this second half (or so) disturbs, or you think that it’s an exaggeration (or complete fiction) then please be aware that these things have happened in small (and not so small) regions of Africa, and will continue to. Sissako knows it.
Obviously made on a low, low budget with many non-actors, this is nevertheless often visually gorgeous and feels painfully real, right up to its stunning and haunting final sequence.
Timbuktu screens at the Mercury Cinema at 4.00pm on Saturday, March 3. Details via mercurycinema.org.au