Toward the end of Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2006 film Bamako, an elderly man breaks into rebellious, heartbroken song in the fictitious court where the World Bank’s push for globalization is put on trial. The man’s unshakeable wails and calling out to the ether speak more powerfully than the tirades of factual evidence and outrage that the prosecutors muster in the film’s final minutes. For Sissako, music is a language of furious hope and peace, and in his remarkable fourth feature, Timbuktu, musicians are both songbirds of peace and targets of the religious rigor that Muslim jihadists use to punish, enslave, and murder several members of the titular North African city.
As these jihadists roam the streets, conspiring and inflicting sadistic judgments on those they see as violators of God’s law, Sissako, who co-wrote the film with executive producer Kessen Tall, works with his actors to not only elevate the hardships and day-to-day actions of the territory’s denizens to the level of the universal, but also to depict those who claim to be God’s soldiers as bereft of grace and faith, almost deadpan in their deliveries. And yet unlike the films of Elia Suleiman, who had a small cameo in Bamako, Timbuktu’s criticism isn’t primarily rooted in satire, but rather in fury and condemnation for those who seek to be gods while shamefully feigning to follow and praise one god.
This isn’t to say that the locals are without sin. A great deal of the film is focused on a family of cattle herders living in the dunes outside of Timbuktu, the paterfamilias of which, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), comes under jihadist judgment in the aftermath of a conflict with a local fisherman over the killing of a cow. The startling climax of this is seen in an awe-inspiring long widescreen shot, with the sun setting over the hills and the fisherman’s small pond. The clash between these two men is given a grand stage in nature by Sissako, and with this one image, the writer-director imparts both the simplicity of the conflict and its weighty moral ramifications with sobering empathy and understanding. In moments like these, which are plentiful, Sissako conveys a wholly personal sense of faith, a sense of being aware of one’s slights against the almighty and your fellow man, and a comfort with whatever the punishment shall ultimately be.
It’s why the crime that Kidane commits feels so much more sorrowful, so tragic, as compared to the ugliness and horror of the jihadists’ punishments. There’s a purposeful coldness to the sequence where a couple is stoned to death, as Sissako sees this as being outside of god’s will, and ultimately nothing more than brutality and murder used to reinforce one’s own shallow sense of piety. In Sissako’s view, the agenda of the jihadists is to create their own self-serving kingdom in Timbuktu, where their authority overrules both god and family. There’s a deeply felt sequence wherein a young woman is forced to marry a jihadist soldier despite her mother’s objections. Here, Sissako rightfully opines that control over women is one of the jihadists’ primary goals, one stated early into the film when a female fishmonger is taken into custody for not wearing gloves.
And yet the filmmaker is careful to never completely lose sight of the jihadists’ human side. One of the group’s more recognizable leaders, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), is all sweet and foolish over Kidane’s wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), even as he demands that she cover her face in front of her daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and adopted son, Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). He’s trying to recruit her in a way, coerce her to bend to the jihadists’ rule, but Jafri’s subtle performance also hints at the man’s yearning for the simple life Kidane and Satima have made, away from the jihadists. In his humble tent in the desert, Kidane can be seen singing and strumming a guitar with his wife and daughter, a devout Muslim family making a simple and fulfilling life for themselves. For Sissako, the jihadists have no such peace, unable to even answer the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) when he asks them where God is in their actions. God may never be a tangible force in this piercing, unrelenting film, but as Fatou (Fatoumata Diawara), a local musician, sings through her tears and above the cracking of a whip against her back, punishment for playing music in her own home, the true measure of real faith, in God as well as in man, is felt forcefully and seen with peerless clarity.