A moving piece of African cinema, Abderrahmane Sissako’s well balanced depiction of the Malian city taken over by Islamic extremists may very well be the most important film of 2015.
A frank and bold depiction of how life has changed under Jihadist rule, Sissako shows how elements of a free society- how we dress, who we socialise with, what music we listen to- are taken from these people. Their strict regulations seems ridiculous, until the punishments for disobeying begin. Only then is the true barbarity of the situation fully realised. Sissako skilfully links these overarching views of society with the tragic personal story of a cattle-herder, and an altercation with his fisherman neighbour, giving his commentary a personal touch.
There are moments of quiet beauty scattered throughout, as the people of Timbuktu attempt to carry on their lives as normally as possible, with their own individual little rebellions. A game of football, minus the ball, is the film’s centrepiece and works perfectly as a much needed slice of comic relief, as well as a minor act of protest.
Perhaps Sissako’s bravest decision is his attempt to put a human face on the extremists. It would be all too easy to paint these men as the personification of pure evil, instead he takes the time to explore their motivations (a conversation between one of the Jihadist leaders and a local Mosque elder is particularly eye-opening). Some are misguided religious zealots, some disenfranchised, angry young men. It’s a gutsy decision to attempt to humanise them, but it is done not in an attempt to create sympathy, but rather to expose their hypocrisy.