Wednesday, October 1, 2014


There's a very disorienting quality about the cinema of Abderahmene Sissako. His work is soothing on some level. I imagine the average movie-goer unfamiliar with his films would refer to him as boring, but I turn to his work to relax & chill out in the same way some people turn to a Brian Eno album to calm their nerves (a few years ago, his 2002 film Waiting For Happiness was my go-to "night movie" to fall asleep too).
But after I'm finished watching one of his films it always hits me way later on how depressing some of his content is.
Sure Bamako (2006) is a beautiful work of art with rich colors, amazing music and lots of great scenic shots, but that movie ends with a guy blowing his brains out (poverty & oppression are also the two underlying themes in that film). On the surface, Waiting For Happiness (2002) is a nice semi-lighthearted film about the day-to-day lives of various residents living in a close-knit African village, yet even that movie ends on a sad note (one of the main character's father figure/legal guardian passes away unexpectedly and he's left alone to fend for himself).
Timbuktu is no exception. There's tons of spirituality & love in Abderahmene Sissako's latest film but it does end on an incredibly sad note. In fact, this might be his saddest ending to date.
This is mostly what intrigues me about his movies. They provide a sense of comfort but they also convey the pain & oppression that's sometimes associated with certain parts of Africa.
It's no mystery that a large chunk of the continent of Africa has been used up & exploited by other parts of the world unlike anywhere else. A lot of the countries in Africa that have a small film scene also have an even bigger history of struggle & oppression so naturally that's going to rub off in their movies (how many prominent comedies or truly lighthearted modern films can you name that have come from Africa in recent years?)
Although it's understandable why so many prominent films from Africa are rooted in sadness, this causes outsiders to have a base/borderline misunderstanding of the continent's beautiful history. I've never stepped foot anywhere near Africa but I know it's filled with an endless amount of beauty that doesn't always make it to the big screen (it really bothers the hell out of me that the most recent successful, noteworthy and/or mainstream films with ties to Africa are Tsotsi, District 9 & Captain Philips).

But this is where Abderahmene comes in. He doesn't try to sugarcoat the bad qualities that have moved in on certain parts of Africa, but he also balances everything out by exploring the importance of music, the positive/spiritual side of religion and all the beautiful features & languages of his characters.

The news surrounding the true story that loosely inspired Timbuktu is just one example of how little the world can care about Africa at times. A few years back, a militant religious group (“Ansar Dine”) staged a coup on a region of Timbuktu and implemented strict rules on the residents like a curfew and no music of any kind. This militant group also forced their religious views on everyone and made it mandatory for the women to stay covered, pretty much from head to toe (gloves included) at all times. When these rules were broken, punishments ranging from public whippings to executions were carried out. News of this coup finally broke world news when an unmarried couple that were caught/accused of fornication were stoned to death in public (there’s a pretty harsh scene in Timbuktu that reenacts this moment).
The reason none of this was considered major news (mostly amongst American-based news publications) is because this all happened around the same time a new iteration of the iPhone was released (late spring/early summer of 2012), so naturally that's going to take priority over news coming out of Africa...

Abderahmene Sissako’s work acts as both “entertainment” (in that they are fictitious movies I watch in the comfort of my home or in a theater for enjoyment) as well as a form of education in that I always learn something new about west Africa whenever I watch his stuff. Besides learning about all the different shades of colors & languages in his films, I find myself googling & Wikipedia-ing after I watch something he's directed. His films almost come off as fiction/loose documentary hybrids (Timbuktu isn’t the first time his work has directly referenced a real news story).
Timbuktu might be Sissako's most straightforward plot yet. There is a certain amount of artsiness to it all (there's a mysterious witch lady character in the movie who roams around the village laughing & spouting random lines of dialogue) but it's still easier for general audiences to follow when compared to his other movies.

When a dispute between a farmer and a fisherman escalates to a homicide, the religious militia that has taken over their village takes it upon themselves to play judge, jury & executioner in the matter. The film also focuses on the other residents of Timbuktu and how their lives are drastically changed by the stern rules set in place by their new authority. 
As I said at the beginning of this review, Timbuktu has an equal amount of peacefulness & spirituality as it does negativity & scenes that are pretty hard to stomach. 
This film falls right in line with the rest of his work as he continues to show strong/"rebellious" female characters, positive father figures and the power of music. Like most films directed by Abderahmene Sissako, this one took a little time to grow on me because there’s quite a bit to process. I'm trying my best not generalize/sound ignorant, but a lot of prominent art house films coming out of Africa are pretty depressing on a realistic level and sometimes tough to watch. 
If you’re familiar with modern African cinema and/or French-Afro cinema, then you probably know what to expect and will more than likely appreciate this film. Personally, I would prefer that Waiting For Happiness be an introduction for Sissako novices, but Timbuktu would be my second choice.. This was a minor hit at Cannes this year (his films seem to be getting more & more popular with each release) so I'm hoping for a nice run at some of the American art house theaters soon.


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