Life During Wartime: Timbuktu

01/28/2015 9:00 AM |
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Opens January 28
Named after their settings, Abderrahmane Sissako’s last two films each tell a story of a community grappling with a system, limned by a couple’s particular struggle. In Bamako, imperialism was put on trial, in the chaotic courtyard of a family compound, Africa writ small; in Timbuktu, religious fundamentalism is just tightening its brutal, obtuse grip on a desert city that feels more like a village in spirit and size. But while the earlier film was a soulful and wry accounting in the aftermath, Sissako’s new, somewhat more schematic feature is set not in the advanced phase of fanatical rule but in the alarming run-up to outright terror and bloodshed.

Resistance does not yet seem futile, as the jihadists commandeering Timbuktu appear to consist of a few guys with guns and a megaphone. Sissako puts off the looming horror of the situation with the comedy of these invaders engrossed in pedestrian exchanges about soccer stars and driving practice, or being told off by a lady fishmonger. To complete the suggestion of an idyll shattered, a loving herding family lives on the dunes outside town, the doting father strumming guitar by moonlight and playing guessing games with his wife and daughter.

But as suggested by the film’s lyrical opening—a sprinting gazelle, a sandy blur, chased for target practice by militants (and oddly echoing recent imperialism doc Concerning Violence)—the beauty of the clear-eyed imagery and the relief of the satire merely cover a brewing tension. Kangaroo-court trials and crackdowns (on music, on clothing) ensue, and as if sparked by the violence hanging in the air, the cowherd gets into a deadly dispute with a fisherman. Instead of a sweet-faced militant hiding his smoking habit, Sissako shifts to a bully who threatens to take a wife by force.

With a stoning, barbarism shows its true face, yet Sissako has constructed a film that sets up our sympathies almost too neatly. Part of the power of Bamako came from its constant recourse to disruption and interruption; while also episodic, Timbuktu, which was inspired by the city’s actual takeover by militants, seems almost to withhold the full force of the hammer coming down—it’s a painful poem but without its predecessor’s energy of performance.