Thursday 6 August 2015

On DVD: "Timbuktu"

Timbuktu arrives as further proof of the Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako's ability to broach the most pressing and serious themes while demonstrating the gentlest and most assured of touches. In form, this is another of this director's bucolic studies of sunny African village life - following on from 1998's Life on Earth, 2003's Waiting for Happiness and 2006's Bamako - but one lent a growing shade by a more immediate threat: strangers in this midst, keen to reorder this society along new and restrictive lines, even if this necessitates the use of a deadly force. The interlopers, in this case, turn out to be Islamic fundamentalists, introduced sniping at ceremonial statues on the outskirts of town, much as their real-world equivalents have sacked Syria and torn down the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

As this force moves inwards, Sissako offers deft sketches of their interactions with the locals. There are attempts to enforce a no smoking ban, ensure women are covered up with socks and gloves, and to convert new followers to the cause. As these are met with stubbornness, if not outright resistance, the invaders are mostly left to sit around on street corners, rather forlornly clutching their attack rifles, talking to one another about the weather or football; some retreat to the hills for target practice, perhaps fearing their rigorous training will go to naught in such a relaxed environment. This, in fact, is Timbuktu's boldest gambit: in observing the fundamentalists at close range, Sissako allows the viewer to see them for who they might really be - not maniacs, but men like any other, misguided, frustrated, bored.

The Islamic State as represented by Sissako's film is comprised of a motley crew, speaking in a variety of tongues (often at cross-purposes), and given to sometimes wobbly movements and convictions, but they're not so very different from you or I, or the family men fleeing from Bradford to the Turkish border in search of a better life. Sissako refutes the easy, tabloid-friendly notion that IS are a bunch of ululating, murderous savages holding a curved blade to civilisation's throat; to have got as far as the movement has (and in so short a period of time), he notes, their ranks must contain administrators and map-readers as well as the fanatical executioners beheading their highest-profile victims on camera.

The one death we see on screen in Timbuktu's opening hour is entirely accidental and avoidable: that of a holy cow nicknamed GPS by its owner, whose death is possibly intended to remind us of our collective capacity to take wrong turns and lose our way. It's the gunmen whom we see maintaining order in the wake of this unrest, and actually you wouldn't have to be a health-and-safety fundamentalist to see that some of the invaders' suggestions - that, say, the village fishmonger wear gloves when handling her stock - aren't so very far-fetched. (This may be the case with ideological codes in general: you can follow them far enough, or you can follow them too far; you can settle for an acceptable level of cleanliness, or push for absolute purity.)

All of which is to hopefully give a flavour of just how calmly and blithely the film proceeds: for the longest while, it could be an Ealing comedy about a long-settled community bumping up against the forces of change. Many of Sissako's sketches are indeed comic in nature - one villager is asked to hitch up trousers that singularly refuse to conform to the new administration's diktats, and is later seen walking off in just his underpants - if not outright absurdist: with the fundamentalists enforcing a "no ball games" rule, the village kids promptly set about - in what's become the film's most celebrated sequence - organising a football match without a ball, scuffing up the dirt and tackling blank space. Even under oppressive regimes, the imagination can be a hell of a thing.

Gradually, as the invaders' repressive ideas take root, the tone becomes harsher. A woman is lashed for singing, and her wails assume a musicality that is its own, very public statement of defiance; two lovers are buried up to the neck and stoned, though Sissako knows how much to show to make his point, and when to cut away to spare us. In this serious-minded second half - when everybody on screen becomes entrenched, with fatal consequences - you can feel Timbuktu digging its own heels in, pushing for importance rather than settling for greatness: it doesn't have the zappiness of Bamako, nor can it quite summon the force that it's going for. (As elsewhere in his filmography, Sissako's idling rhythms are poised at the exact midpoint between oppositional and counterproductive.)

What's radical is the way Sissako has purged anything that might be considered inflammatory from the frame - no mean feat when you're making a movie about jihadists (a target audience like any other, and one who might just see themselves in here). These images don't burn with counter-fundamentalist rage, but instead seek to warm the spirit; they don't shoot the breeze, so much as catch it and soar high upon it. At the very least, Timbuktu bears out that old maxim that he who speaks quietest will often confer the most authority upon themselves: it's the film that caused the West, and even the Academy, an organisation which has been prone to cultural deafness, to prick up its ears and lean into Africa in a way it hadn't for some time.

Timbuktu is released on DVD and Blu-Ray through Curzon Artificial Eye on Monday.    

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