Islamic extremists have infiltrated Mali in northern Africa, bringing with them their barbaric laws. For a young unwed couple in Aguelhok, they now must face death by stoning. Their crime: having children outside marriage. 

Must-see cinema from Mauritanian.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Except for the special event of the Toronto Film Festival’s Cameron Bailey showcasing his Planet Africa series in the late 1990s, African cinema is a rare event at the Sydney Film Festival. So it was a cause of great joy when Timbuktu, the latest film from Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako was announced as a late addition to 2014’s Sydney Film Festival screenings.

Sissako’s style embraces vivid colour, lilting music and is often wistful, and contemplative, but Timbuktu has a fire in its belly that propels the film beyond mere pretty pictures. Thematically consistent with Sissako’s previous film Bamako (which played at SFF 2007), Timbuktu’s dramatisation of political and social turmoil eschews the earlier film’s Godardian experimentation and aligns itself with the gorgeous simplicity of the director’s 2002 feature Waiting for Happiness.

Gently and gracefully tossing out narrative seeds, the story (co-written by Kessan Tell) portrays how the famed African city is under the sway of aggressive Islamic extremists that increasingly constrain the lives of the inhabitants who previously felt free to enjoy music, cigarettes and even soccer within their own, less restrictive Islamic beliefs. While no date is specified, the film appears to be set during the brief 2012 occupation of Timbuktu by Islamic rebels who tried to implement Sharia law.

On the outskirts of the besieged, impoverished city, a cattle-owner, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), takes pleasure and pride in his loving wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), lives for his adorable daughter, Toya, and fondly regards the young boy Issan, who tends Kidane’s cows by the riverside. In town, an imam holds the jihadists to account for their extremism but knows he cannot persuade them to give up their arms and embrace the peace of true Islam. Elsewhere on a dusty plateau in the city, when the eyes of the fundamentalists are averted, young men play soccer without an illicit ball, echoing the mimed tennis game in Blow Up, and substituting faith for Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential doubt. But unfortunately, some things don’t escape the extremist’s surveillance. After privately enjoying music one night, a group of men and women are executed by a merciless stoning, as intimidated villagers helplessly look on.

Timbuktu connects these disparate threads together with a poet’s ease and a delightful grace. While it is easy to see where the film’s loyalties lie, it declines to over-romanticise Timbuktu’s inhabitants. A conflict between the shepherd and a fisherman is brutal enough even before the fundamentalists intervene. Conversely, Sissako balms his observation of fundamentalist hypocrisy with a forgiving eye. Certainly a far more compassionate eye than fundamentalists would cast on his film.

With many potentially explosive ingredients, many filmmakers would inevitably become lost in a despair-evoking dramatic climax. Instead, Sissako serves true sadness, as he asks the audience to consider why people become refugees from their homelands, choosing to leave their family, friends and heritage. ‘Don’t rush to despair or judgement’ the film seems to beg, ‘feel the emotion first’.

This concern with listening is well dramatised by the fact that with their invasion, the fundamentalists bring with them the additional problem of a lack of a common language. Moving between Arabic, French, Tamasheq and occasionally English, the film demonstrates the patience required to navigate even the most simple of negotiations and the folly of succumbing to the temptation to preparing answers rather than use the opportunity to listen.

Understandably, Mauritania (where most of this film set in the famed city of neighbouring country Mali was shot) is not exactly brimming with film professionals. Sissako himself lives in Paris much of the year. However, with a limited talent pool, the director does an exemplary job of constructing performances out of his mostly amateur cast, who are supported by a smattering of professionals.

There’s been some scuttlebutt about Timbuktu securing a local distributor. Certainly the film deserves it, but more than that, we need it. As Australia’s African population increases – mostly due to war and famine – we need to know more about Africa. Sissako provides here a fictionalised form to the same forces that have pushed Nigeria onto our headlines and other African refugees to our shores. Here’s hoping it’s not our last chance to absorb Sissako’s tender message of sadness and hope.