The opening film in competition, Timbuktu is a tough act to follow. Set in the eponymous remote and striking city, director Abderrahamane Sissako’s film focuses on the jihad and extreme Islam’s corrosive influence in this beautiful place.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, AKA Pino) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) live with their children in a tent outside of town. Their nomadic existence is something out of a fairytale: they are beautiful, happy and seemingly beyond the madness of extremism that is engulfing the town. Yet this idyllic existence cannot last, for nobody can remain untouched. Local jihad leader Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) has a soft spot for Satima and always happens to visit when hubby’s not home. Then their son gets into trouble taking the cattle, his beloved cow – the brilliantly named GPS – killed for getting entangled in a local fisherman’s nets. So begins this family’s fall into the clutches of the extremists.
On the whole, the people are seen as ordinary Muslims going about their business – it’s the jihad’s ridiculous edicts that make a mockery of their religion. Ordered to wear gloves in public at all times, the fisherwoman tells them to cut off her hands. “You can’t wear gloves if you don’t have hands”. Her retort is also a comment on the punishments meted out, and in fact Sissako was inspired by a real-life incident of two “lovers” being stoned to death for indecent acts, a punishment he depicts in the film. The stoning, the whippings, the summary executions show how the Taliban use pain as public spectacle.
Sissako also shows how the jihadists are capable of creating logic out of madness. When a woman is forced into marriage with a man who won’t take no for an answer, the response to the imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) is that the Koran says “if a man is good, procure him a wife”. There is also the irony of imposing interdicts against playing football whilst talking about the merits of Messi, and outlawing music when each jihadist has a different ringtone on their mobile. Modern technology is put to use elsewhere, Abdelkrim encouraging his ex-rapper follower to make a video encouraging other young men to join the cause. As he exhorts his unwilling actor to look into the camera and speak with more conviction, we have another image of jihadism as spectacle.
This is no faux documentary and nor is it a naturalist portrayal of the people or the town. One of the most evocative scenes is that of a football-less football match, a surreal and wonderful moment. The women are strong, defying the jihad throughout the film. Yet when we see the jihad chasing an antelope, shouting “tire it, don’t kill it” we realise that this is how they erode a culture and a tradition, slowly exhausting it in the expectation of its natural demise. Sissako may be preaching to the converted here, but he does so with elegance, intelligence and beauty.