‘Don’t kill him – wear him down.’ Those are among the first words we hear in Abderrahmane Sissako’s devastating African drama ‘Timbuktu’, spoken by a gun-toting jihadist chasing down a fleeing gazelle. The scene sets a chilling tone that’s impossible to shake: terror, in this case, isn’t about killing the body, but the spirit.
After this bloodcurdling opening, the film settles into a semi-relaxed groove as it sketches out the lives of a small community also under siege. Set in Timbuktu, a city on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in Mali, shepherd Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives with his wife and child in the dunes. When one of Kidane’s cows becomes tangled in a trawler’s net and is killed by an angry fisherman, the incident upsets a peace that could charitably be termed fragile. Islamic thugs rule the town and preach a bastardised gospel via megaphone: no music, no uncovered female bodies, no football – though even the terrorists discuss Zidane’s career in hallowed tones.
The residents live with the oppression as best they can, either avoiding contact with the radicals or openly defying them. One woman, clearly nearing insanity, walks around in red high-heels and a flowing dress. The jihadists leave her alone – she’s too far gone to be made an effective example of. Punishment for others runs the gamut from 40 lashes to death by machine gun, though Sissako, with a few blunt-force exceptions, usually refrains from showing violence, preferring to juxtapose cruel acts with poetic images. (The stoning of a married couple is paralleled with a man doing an impassioned interpretive dance, the off-screen noise of rocks smashing flesh perversely acting as rhythmic backbeat.)
Kidane’s inevitable confrontation with the fisherman takes place against a sun-dappled landscape. Sissako’s methods are confrontational, yet never to the point that you feel you’re watching sacrificial lambs instead of people caught in a horrible situation. In this terrible context, madness and death are blessings. It’s living that’s the curse.