Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, screened in the top Competition slot of the ongoing Cannes Film Festival, is a gripping indictment of religious fundamentalism.
To be precise, the movie is about Islamic extremism that the auteur narrates and comments on through very ordinary characters, through everyday situations and through sparse frames. There is nothing dramatic about this film – so far removed from the kind of cinema that India makes.
Timbuktu opens with a group of gun-toting men in an open van chasing a deer in an African wild. The panicky animal is running for its life even as the men tell each other not to kill it, but tire it. This just about sums up the mood and theme of the movie: to enslave the people to a religious doctrine by tiring and terrifying them into stupor, into demeaning obedience.
But men being men, there is rebellion and this emerges from very mundane incidents. When the fundamentalists ban music and order women to cover even their hands, one fisherwoman asks, but how am I going to sell my ware with gloves on!
Sissako seems to suggest through such incidents that the new plague in Africa is not colonialism, but the religious terror inflicted on the inhabitants by Muslim radicals. And the film comes uncannily at a time when 300 Nigerian schoolgirls have been abducted.
Through images that seem monastic, the screenplay has been inspired by an incident that took place a couple of years ago in a small city in the north of Mali. In 2012, Islamic Jihadists executed a couple for raising children without being properly married. They are stoned to death after having been buried in sand till their necks. This was the starting point of a bloody conflict between the simple people -- whose faith is reverential -- and extremists -- who brandish guns and go about forcing men and women into subservience.
Sissako revolves his plot around a couple who live with their little daughter and a herd of cows in an almost idyllic condition outside a town. Their innocence is played out against and elaborated through a series of fundamentally crazy episodes. And we are told that religion or even a trace of it is just an excuse to trample insubordination. This could not have been brought out more explicitly than in the final scene where we see the daughter running in a state of absolute fear. She takes the place of the deer.
Timbuktu is heavily tipped to be a front runner on the day of the awards.
The Festival ends on May 25.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival, and may e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)