Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
The critical reception to Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ll preface by saying that my response to the film comes from a place that’s largely unfamiliar with African cinema. Rarely have I encountered such an immediate distance between subject and viewer, whereby my response to Sissako’s film was one of ambivalence. In a film that depicts the travails of residents in Timbuktu as they come under occupation by militant Islam rebels, it’s troubling to observe something so contemporary and immediate failing to resonate.
Pinpointing the problem is difficult because Timbuktu offers so much that should conceptually work: a poetic flightiness between scenes, a strong sense of compositions and framing, and a timely subject that calls to mind concerns of ISIS. But this is an exercise in contrasts and oppositions that never quite come together. Of course, that’s the thematic intent - the residents of Timbuktu are subjugated to jihadist radicalism, with their peaceful living shaken. Gun-toting troops occupy the rooftops, overseeing their subjects with brute force. The film works best when it captures these moments of acute social dominance: a group of children are prohibited from using a soccer ball, so they play a game with an imaginary one. Or when a man and woman are buried under sand with only their heads sticking out as rebels pelt rocks. These sequences are immediate and filled with a sense of social urgency, but there are problems to how Sissako composes the picture together.
The most grating aspect involves his use of music, which more often than not removes you from the perceived naturalism on display. The painfully generic sound and at times careless deployment of it seems to always push the viewer away, whereby the punishing or emotionally trying sequences are given an all too unnecessary underscore. Moreover, the film’s actors aren’t especially convincing either. It says something that the film works best when its camera is pulled away or when Sissako uses a montage. In Sissako’s long shots, scenery provides a serene opposition to the brutality taking place in the foreground - a rich text of social concerns against nature. Yet not one of Sissako’s actors can suggest a sense of conflicted agitation when in close-up.
Language is a critical aspect to the film’s distancing, and it’s the central point that I’ve held onto since my screening. With so many characters in the film requiring translators to communicate, it makes thematic sense that the film keeps you at a distance. After all, these characters are distanced between each other, with oppositional frames of mind butting heads with no means to come to agreement. But ultimately, there are too many sequences that just don’t seem to fit in anywhere (a hysterical medium strikes me as the film’s biggest wtf), that I hearken back to my previous statement regarding my professed ignorance of African cinema. Roger Ebert once regarded films as the ultimate machine for empathy, whereby a viewer can be transported to the shoes of the characters he observes. With Timbuktu, I wanted to peer into these peoples’ lives and understand their plights of social injustice, but ultimately there’s a cultural barrier that I could not clear. Time, and a greater exploration through African cinema, will likely remedy that issue. But for now, Timbuktu remains an elusive mystery.