Thursday 25 June 2015


(Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

This starts off with a string of barely connected narrative threads about the residents of Timbuktu dealing with a newly installed Islamist government who have imposed Sharia law. Women are forced to wear gloves, men short trousers. Music and football are banned. Fighters patrol the streets brandishing kalashnikovs.
Shot simply, with an even rhythm and an eye for a lovely composition, Sissako's story gathers power as it moves. We know that this will all probably end badly for all involved (there are a few instances of foreshadowing early on), but it is the warmth and joy of the lives portrayed here that gives the film such impact. A cattle farmer lives in simple contentment with his wife and young daughter in the desert. An old holy man gently argues in the Mosque with armed Islamists.
The pacing is so steady, so patient, that the slow rise in tension is almost subliminal. The effect of the Islamists - at first portrayed as almost comic in their ineffectual bumbling - becomes more serious, more invasive, more frightening.  A girl is forced to marry a foreign mujahadin. A woman is caught singing and flogged in the street. A couple of adulterers are buried up to their necks in sand and stoned to death. The final act is devastating and utterly inevitable.
There are earlier scenes of purest cinema: a football match played by boys with an imaginary ball, as music rises on the soundtrack. Even the frustrated mujahadin blowing the tips off desert plants with a burst from an AK47. For all that this film demonises militant fundamentalism, these men are never cartoons; instead they are as complex and human as anybody else in this lovely film.

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