Beautifully shot and hauntingly relevant, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is undoubtedly one of this year’s greatest triumphs. The tranquil lives of a cattle herding family are only occasionally disturbed by the Jihadist law they find themselves living under. That is until one unfortunate event threatens their peaceful existence. Sofian El Fani’s cinematography overwhelms – beautiful imagery and landscapes contradict the hideous underlying themes of Timbuktu. Films this brave are equally rare. Sissako, who’s been making movies since the early 1990s, demonstrates in these captivating 100 minutes that he is arguably the greatest director currently working in African cinema. Besides the central family, we encounter a variety of misfits and souls; many of whom live in much closer range to, and more direct fear of, the militants who control their streets. This is cinematic poetry. At times surreal and always spiritual, Timbuktu handles its portrayal of political and religious extremism with undeniable vigour and temerity. What begins as a film about atrocity and violence suddenly sits for a while in a scene of visual beauty and narrative calm before the plot is once again interrupted with acts of excessive brutality. A constant balance of the savage and the spiritual keeps Timbuktu afloat and our eyes transfixed. Every performance is complex and heartfelt. Each character displays traits and behaviours that reflect their vulnerability and human imperfection.
For the most part, Sissako uses well-paced scenes with meandering dialogue to capture the harsh realities of the situations. Amidst the raw tragedy, Sissako scatters the occasional absurdity. A local woman wanders the streets – a witchdoctor of sorts, unapologetic and seemingly fearless of those who rule and threaten her lifestyle. Accompanied by a chicken, she cackles at all that goes on around her – never letting on to the audience her exact state of mind. Her insanity makes her fearless and her fearlessness gives her power to speak truths to those who dictate. She is a reflection of the chaos that surrounds. We spend a lot of time in the company of the extremist rulers as well as the civilians. Conversations between two comrades make for particularly interesting viewing as well as the heated tension that swarms amongst the extremists and the religious leaders in the town and local places of worship. Atmosphere and aesthetic are everything in Timbuktu. As the poisonous ethos of the fundamentalists infects the town they oversee, the film’s stunning landscape shots are steadily outdone by the graphic and unapologetic imagery of barbaric behaviour and punishment. Timbuktu is the most important film of 2015 so far and will most likely remain so. A heart-breaking commentary on one of our most terrifying global issues and injustices, Timbuktu tells the most human of stories. It celebrates bravery in the face of prejudice and highlights just how vital dignity is to the soul. Despite its ambitious and relentless tackling of these daunting themes, Timbuktu remains wholeheartedly cinematic and poetic.
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