LIFF28 - Timbuktu - Cinema Review

'Sissako's cold treatment of his characters feels at odds to his willingness to provide hinted moments of warmth and humour.'

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu has been wildly praised at other festivals this year, which perhaps raised my expectations for the film to an unfair degree: Sissako's insightful Drama is good, prescient and extremely relevant to the contemporary world, but it is also detached, clinically cold to a degree which eschews its characters.

Set in a Timbuktu ruled by militant, conservative Islamists, Sissako's film succeeds in painting a muddy picture where 24 hour news is so keen for us to see it in black and white. During the course of Timbuktu we see one of the fundamentalists failing to record the video renouncing his past life. Another fundamentalist is glimpsed dancing in secret, whilst the people that live under their forced rule manage to sneak in odd games of football with an invisible ball and music nights for which they receive lashings come the morning. Perhaps the ultimate depiction is the leader of the fundamentalists, constantly at odds with the religious leader, whose teachings he claims to represent.

While Sissako clearly has lessons for us all in the characters he depicts, he does not seem to really care about creating or having us care for those very characters. A twitter commenter pointed out, entirely fairly, that this detachment let Sissako deliver a film that was far enough away to be non-judgemental, but it also means it is difficult to care about events and people surely Sissako wants us to care about in the long run, or at least in terms of who they represent in the real world. The finale of the film sees three characters running away - harking back to a heavy-handed opening metaphor where the militants hunt a fleeing baby antelope. The problem is that we know so little about those three characters, it is difficult to care what happens to any of them. In one of their cases' we have not even been treated to seeing the character's face. It's clearly intentional, but it gives Timbuktu a similar certain clinical air to the news shows it feels like it is countering.

That this is the outcome for Sissako and his characters feels odd given his willingness to provide hinted moments of warmth and humour. Timbuktu is surprisingly, but entirely naturally, a delicately funny film. Several vehicular incidents, the invisible football game and a smattering of loud hailer announcements poke fun at the ridiculousness of the situation, in much the same way - though infinitely subtler - as Four Lions.

That Sissako cannot carry the warmth of some of his tone through to his characters is perhaps inevitable. This is a successful ensemble piece, giving us a necessary snapshot of Africa under occupation. To do that properly, perhaps you have to abandon character to loose stand-ins, but in doing so Sissako occasionally also lost my emotional engagement.

Timbuktu screens again at LIFF28 on Tuesday 11th November at 14.00 in Vue.

The 28th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-20th November 2014 at cinemas around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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