Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu Captivates Cannes: The Imagination as Rebellion


It is one of the most stunning films in the Cannes Competition this year: Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu, about individuals in Mali trying to maintain dignity and freedom despite the oppressive rules of the Jihadists invading their country. It begins with antelope leaping in slow-motion across the sandy steppes, until they are shot to death, and continues with evocative images of the desert and the people who live there, images that are rhythmically underscored with twanging chords of music. Each image holds an alluring sense of time. A woman washes her hair, while a man stares at her, and we hear the screechy sounds of her hair going through a comb, wielded by her pretty daughter. A truck goes by on a dusty road, carrying huge bales of golden hay. A man slowly walks alone on the steppes, searching for his cow.

These gentle shots are undercut, however, by the political context: The Jihadists have prohibited all forms of individual freedom, from smoking to playing soccer to listening to music. One woman is arbitrarily told that she can no longer sell her fish at the market, unless she wears gloves.

Still, individuals persevere -- and rebel.

"My father is surviving because he plays his guitar," one child tells another.

Similarly, a group of soccer players rebel by playing a game in pantomime, without a ball.

"I hope to have something like hope in my films" the director told us later, with earnest conviction. "One can ban music, but the strongest music is what we hear in our head. You can ban soccer, but you can not prevent the choreography of soccer in our mind. The woman in my film who sings when she is whipped: that is the strength of life."

Another symbol of rebellion: the Haitian transplant, Zabou, a woman dressed in long flowing colorful robes, with red ribbons in her hair. She passes by ever so often, the long trail of her dress flowing behind her like a peacock's tail. She breaks every prohibition: she smokes, sings, laughs. Her image is breathtaking.

This is what is striking about Sissako's film. Unlike the typical docu-fiction about miserable situations, here in "Timbuktu" we do not see "miserable" people, weighed down by suffering. Rather, each character -- from the gorgeous Haitian woman to the guitar-playing father tending his cows -- exudes serenity and beauty. We feel attracted to these people, wanting to be closer. Not pity.

Similarly, the Jihadists are not cast as monsters. The director looks at all his characters -- victim and oppressor -- with nuanced eyes. "There is no purely good or evil human being," the director said simply. "Hope lies in the fact that he who bans music also loves music."

This explains a scene that puzzled some viewers: a humorous episode in which a group of Jihadists scratch their heads, trying to get the right "tone" for a fundamentalist propaganda video. "You're got to sound more convinced!" one guy tells another.

"For me, cinema is an invitation, a voyage, an invitation to the freedom of the spectator. It is about sharing," Sissako explained, shedding light on his kind of cinema, based in "open" image, so different from the classic Western model, based in "closed" plot.

"The image is the essential part of the art of film-making. When I began my studies in Moscow, in the first lesson, I learned that cinema is something that first you see and only then you hear. The frame must be an invitation, an open window to something. No one says that one is obliged to use a classic model to make a film. I don't like American films because they don't seem to be openings; they are not invitations. I also am careful not to have too beautiful or aesthetic an image. My images are somber, so as to avoid the Kodak look. A film should appear as a doubt, not truth. We can only pretend there is a truth."

His film is itself a form of rebellion.

But rebellion can only go so far, however, in a country dominated by armed Jihads. The climax of Sissako's film is the stoning of two lovers, their bodies buried in the sand up to their necks: a scene based on a real stoning the director saw on video, a horror which inspired him to make this film. The afternoon sun shines on their mutilated heads, long after the two have been stoned to death.

A similar fate will soon meet the kind guitar-playing father, who tended cows. He too is to be executed.

At the press conference, Sissako broke down weeping, his head in his hands, thinking of this father, who will leave his beloved daughter an orphan..

"I cry in the place of those who have experienced real suffering," he said a few moments later when he could speak. "But the truly courageous are those who daily undergo real combat--" His voice rose soberly. "And rebel."