Cannes: Timbuktu review

Timbuktu was a strong start to the competition here in Cannes, and not quite what one might expect, given that it was inspired by the devastatingly senseless murder of a couple in Aguelhok in Northern Mali.

Director Abderrahmane Sissako very much drops the audience right into Timbuktu – both the film and the place – and allows us to gradually build an understanding and appreciation of the situation and story. it’s as characters are exposed and the scenarios coalesce that we get a deeper understanding of the events we are seeing, and thus the emotional core of the film.

The area depicted in the film is controlled by Jihadists and such things as music, cigarettes and even football – or soccer, for our American readers – have been banned. The residents have very much had this control thrust upon them and they are quietly resisting, often attempting to ignore the new laws, occasionally standing up against them.

Most affected by these new regulations are the local women. They are now forced to cover their faces and, as we join the story, their hands and feet too. But these women prove to be the most resistant, and it’s a powerful sight to see them shouting in the faces of men wielding AK47s.

Timbuktu is not a polemical strike against religious extremism, though it can be hard to stomach and difficult to watch. There are scenes that may cause you to recoil in horror, others that could shock, disgust and appall you, but also a great many moments of humour.

One scene, for instance, centres on a speech being delivered by a young Jihadist. He was a rapper until the wave of extremism swept in, and here he is explaining his conversion to a camera. Many have seen this kind of video before, online or on the news, but Sissako here shows us what’s happening on outside of the frame, complete with interruptions for coaching, awkward pauses and total screw-ups. It’s a very witty scene, and powerful too. There are many moments like this, sharply cutting through received perceptions of Jihadists.

But Sissako never loses sight of the severity of his subject matter, or how important this is. Much of the humour is only funny – and always rather blackly so – because of their juxtaposition with other, extreme events. Editor Nadia Ben Rachid creates these combinations with great skill, holding difficult moments for the exact right time, making cuts with close attention to their impact.

The score from Amine Bohafa is comparably sublime. There’s a quiet, propulsive percussion that returns throughout, but which is so subtle that it almost goes unnoticed at times, always providing the sense of a dark march. There’s a grim progression – or perhaps more appropriately, a grim regression – in the direction an even bleaker, more oppressive situation for Timbuktu.

The film has been beautifully shot by Sofiane El Fani, who seems to really understand the power of the human face and when to simply just frame it on screen, as you will also see from her work on Blue is the Warmest Colour.

There are several scenes that will linger with me from Timbuktu, but none moreso than the bittersweet football match in which the players play without a ball, because balls are banned. El Fani’s camera captures the beauty of the players movements, while the scene is haunted by two deathly spectres, Jihadists circling the game on a motorcycle.

The scene is potent and deeply affecting, and for the first time in my life I think I finally saw football in a positive light. That’s no mean feat.

Timbuktu has Cannes off and running. We look forward to finding out when the film is going to be released around the world, and will definitely be sure to pass that information on.