Abderrahmane Sissako may not be the most prolific of filmmakers – funding can’t be easy for a determinedly poetic and political writer-director born in Mauretania who has subsequently led a somewhat nomadic life – but he is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and ambitious writer-directors working in film today, and quite possibly one of the best.
It’s eight years since he made Bamako (2006), 12 since Waiting for Happiness (2002) and 16 since Life on Earth (1998): all very different movies, but all discernibly his, distinguished by their elliptical, oblique approach to narrative and theme, by their subtle, imaginative but finally very direct take on political, economic and ethical issues and by their quietly meticulous, detailed deployment of image and sound. Each looks at contemporary African life with a deceptively dispassionate eye: Sissako is rightly wary of apportioning blame in a unambiguous fashion, and makes quite clear that questions of cause and effect are complex and should never be answered simplistically.
His latest film Timbuktu, inspired by the horror he felt at the real-life stoning to death, in July 2012, of an unmarried couple living in Aguelhok in northern Mali, is a case in point, and it made for an unusually rewarding start to this year’s Cannes Competition. Most critics I spoke to agreed that it was probably the finest first-night press screening since Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); I’d go back even further, to Edward Yang’s A Confucian Confusion (1994). Whatever, it’s obviously ludicrously early to be talking prizes, but unless this year’s line-up is especially strong, Sissako’s film must surely be in with a chance of winning something.
It succeeds – and is characteristic of his work – on many levels. Though it sort of centres on the experiences of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), Salima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya and their young cowherd Issan – whose sudden, accidental loss of control of a pregnant cow results, tragically, in several deaths – the film takes in a far wider range of characters and narrative strands.
Gradually it moves from an almost discursive account of the oppressive zeal of gun-wielding jihadists to a more focussed, only slightly more conventional portrait of their deadly actions. A female fishmonger resists the imposition of gloves, a mother asks why she should allow her teenage daughter to be married off to a total stranger, friends sing together at home: all end up in makeshift courts overseen by sharia extremists who don’t even originate from the Timbuktu area or speak the local language. Resistance is logical, widespread, courageous and – too often – futile. The film, fragmented, elegant, uninsistent but utterly persuasive, embraces all this and much more.
Though confronting extremist intolerance and sometimes murderous injustice, Sissako consistently and deftly avoids clumsily simplistic characterisation. Even the jihadists are depicted as intelligent – and prepared, to some degree, to listen; it’s ideology, and a lack of awareness of human suffering, that gets in the way.
Sissako respects the faith of others, but even more allows for the right to choose one’s way of living or dying. The opening sequence, of a gazelle fleeing hunters and of statues being destroyed by gunfire, shows how nature, tradition and art are at risk from a violent belief in one’s own superiority. Dreamlike sequences of kids playing soccer without a ball, or of a crazed, shaman-like woman stopping an armed, fundamentalists’ 4x4 simply by spreading her arms, likewise reveal how Sissako can turn everyday actions into telling and affecting metaphor.
Sofian El Fani’s superb ’Scope camerawork and Amine Bouhafa’s lyrical score (a treat for fans of Anouar Brahem) help to hold the somewhat fragmented narrative together, as does Sissako’s familiar tonal boldness. Even if his purpose here is deeply serious in social, philosophical, political and humanist terms, he’s not at all afraid to leaven the brew with moments of humour: for example, a discussion of defeats and victories that turns out to be about football, not battle.
Likewise, a brutal if mercifully brief scene of death by stoning is followed by a mysterious, lovely sequence of a man performing a silent ballet, perhaps redemptive or purificatory. This coup de cinema is as impressive and compelling as Kidane’s flight from a killing, shown in distant long shot but far more eloquent than any close-up in the Cannes opener Grace of Monaco. Sissako understands both the world he’s lived in and cinema itself. His films have always been both memorably magical and supremely honest; this is no exception.