At the Edge of Sin

I’ve been on and on about how much I enjoy Timbuktu, but I never actually took a moment to sit down and write a review on it.

So, here I am, sitting down and getting that through – now that it is somehow considered a 2015 US release rather than a 2014 one (did… did Miami transcend time? Or did my local theater just say jog on to release dates? Whatever, I’m glad I saw the film anyway.)

By the time Timbuktu was made, Abderrahmane Sissako was already sort of making a big deal as one of the major African filmmakers to break through into Western favor and, like the late great Ousmane Sembene alongside him, it came a lot from criticizing subversion and oppression in African nations from all fronts: legislation, religion, invasion, etc. Sissako also deserves a space in my personal canon based on his devotion to 35mm for the making of his pictures. I know that it really is a dumb thing to heighten one up based on that at this point (I am personally on neither film or digital sides, but insistent that they both have their purposes), but it still warms me to see a filmmaker who is not Spielberg or Nolan and obviously needs to make the budget for film stock et al. to actually pursue the format.

As a result, Timbuktu lends itself to some heart-stopping gorgeous shots in the Mauritania landscape that plays at being Mali for the time being. I would be hard-pressed to name a particular lake as the central setpiece of Timbuktu, when so much of the film takes place within the city itself, but it is definitely the place where the cinematography by Sofiane El Fani is showed off best – light reflecting on the edge of the water in a sharp edge, a wide range of space with which to capture several different actions at once, and in a particular moment, even split the audience’s eye to look in two separate directions at once without even trying to be as overt as the famous rig-split shot from Goodbye to Language 3D. In the meantime, when the film does return to the city, it is dedicated to making the buildings feel as gaunt and pale and sapped as the souls of the characters trapped within the occupation of Ansar Dine, while having a bleached touch to its set design to bring some visual heat to the scenario within.

Timbuktu is indeed a little bit of a mosaic narrative (though not entirely) of lives trapped within the Ansar Dine regime, the real-life Islamist militia that occupied Mali. At once portrayed as hypocritical buffoons that still have some danger to them as a local religious bullies, Ansar Dine is making characters are suffering for the slightest of actions – from not wearing gloves to refusing to involve themselves in an involved marriage. It’s even got the local Imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) peeved, especially when slight moments show Ansar Dine’s disregard for basic Islamic manners and courtesy to others, trying desperately to salvage the public’s freedoms while also clearly attempting to avoid a bullet to the head. Hell, one of the most humorous yet shocking moments is where one of the Ansar Dine members listens to citizens of Timbuktu playing music praising Islam and the man who discovers it is stuck in debate with his boss Abdelkarim (Abel Jafri) whether or not to still punish them. And while the punishment is tastefully far from exploitative – mostly relegated to cutaways and off-screen space, it’s nonetheless immensely repulsive and hard to watch in its severity. I think one of my favorite things about the year of 2014 has been how much audience reaction I’ve been able to witness and one of them was the collective gasp made from the only impact we see during a stoning.

In the meantime, far enough away from the central city to feel isolated and almost peaceful but still nearby enough to make the wise protests of his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) to outright move camp relevant, rancher Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) finds knowingly limited solace with their daughter near one of the most beautifully shot rivers I’ve seen on film against the constant possibility of Ansar Dine expanding where they now live. It’s especially not aided by Abdelkarim and his ward constantly roving about to visit and spy (Abdelkarim proves to be an especially terrible driver among his other obvious faults and yet it gives him one of the more human moments early the film).

Anyway, I’m sure by now, it should not be too much of a surprise to too many readers that I would be connected to this sort of story by its portrayal of Islam and Islamic extremism in a land that is already not in much of a great position. But Sissako doesn’t seem so focused on that factor to have made the film exclusively tailor-made for people like me. Drowning the town in the many prohibitions we see ends up being the tangents to allow all the different themes Sissako includes in the film – regret, dignity, horror – to become immediately accessible, while also complimenting the shots by El Fani to give a real lifeless feeling of the town being sapped of all its character and culture.

A living, breathing requiem for its city under its circumstances and astounding work of character building in the end, Timbuktu has still remained my favorite film of 2015 (since now I have to count it as that I guess… dammit) so far 1/12 of the year in. It’ll probably be surpassed since it’s not perfect (the final few moments get its narratives all up in a tangle), but that will not put down just how eye-catchingly gorgeous the film is, even in spite of all the suffering it is forced to capture and portray.