(Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania - 2014)
Viewed in the wake of the recent terror in Mali and Paris and Beirut, Sissako's gentle but searing film grows in its tragic dimensions. In the West, Timbuktu has long been a touchstone of Eastern exotica; as far back as the 12th century, gold, textiles, salt, horses, and slaves all passed through or were traded in the city, and travelers brought back tales to Europe of great wealth and wonder. For a time, it was a center of scholarship, representing some of the cultural heights of the early Islamic world. Today Timbuktu is largely immiserated and in decline, the land becoming more arid, the weather less reliable, and the people more prone to incursions of vicious Islamic fundamentalists. Sissako dramatizes the effects of one such recent occupation, in which Timbuktu was briefly overtaken by Ansar Dine, an ISIS-like organization. The persistence of life under these conditions is the basis of the film's drama and its subtle humor, as the residents react to the absurd dictates of their new rulers with bemusement, outrage, irritation, and guile.
The dominant key is one of stoic, graceful survival. Timbuktu has seen worse times, and it will likely survive its recent tumult, although climatic changes, hinted at in the film, cast a pallor of doubt over even this prospect. Sissako's eye is attuned to the quotidian, and it ranges from the lovely to the horrific, with a quiet bafflement over the horrors of fundamentalist rule and a deep reverence for the humanity that endures it. The film is often radiantly beautiful, even when harshness and terror are imminent. Sissako isn't concerned with delivering the obvious condemnations, instead placing the mundane realities of waging authoritarian jihad alongside their most egregious abuses. The invaders argue over soccer, they offer desultory reminders of the new rules, many of which are absurd besides being repressive - fishmongers must wear gloves if they are female, music and smoking are forbidden but clandestinely enjoyed - they putter about on aimless patrols, hand down swift injustice when the occasion calls for it.
Sissako has a glinting, brilliant eye but a very soft touch, and there are moments when one can't help but wonder if the subject matter calls for a different approach. His contrast of the idyllic herders, who live on the outskirts of town, with the brutal harshness of the jihadist rule in the city feels occasionally to be pat or forced. But this might be the limits of our own perspective. When we in the West hear of this kind of violence and repression, and it's been a lot lately, it has little more reality to us than the tales of Marco Polo had for the burghers of quattrocento Venice. Sissako's choice, by not indulging in our desire to sensationalize the depicted injustice, and thus absolving us of our own moral imagination, is bold and canny.
But even in its foreignness, the world of Timbuktu is disarmingly and alarmingly familiar. Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous. Several languages are spoken, including French and English, and translation can pose a challenge. Amid the Eastern unfamiliarity come jolts of recognition, even more so because of how ordinary they are: singing, playing music, arguing about sports trivia, simple familial love. The crossed strands of culture and commerce that first launched Timbuktu into the popular imagination remain, but there's a dark cloud that looms over the limpid desert beauty. There are no real oases. Timbuktu isn't that far from Paris, or from New York, for all the good and evil in the world.