Daily | Cannes 2014 | Abderrahmane Sissako’s TIMBUKTU



“Abderrahmane Sissako can no longer be called one of the greatest African directors of our time; he has become, simply, one of the greatest directors of our time.” Peter Labuza at the Film Stage: “With his fifth feature, Timbuktu, Sissako fuses the poetic visual language of Waiting for Happiness with the political urgency of Bamako to bring about a revelatory work, something along the lines of a Howard Hawks jihadi-hangout movie. I mean that as a very good thing.”

“While Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako has premiered three films in Cannes (winning a number of prizes including the FIPRESCI), and has served on three of its juries including the Competition jury in 2007, Timbuktu represents his first film In Competition,” notes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “This unusual profile, coupled with Sissako’s (rightly) outspoken opinions on the underrepresentation of African filmmaking in the average international festival lineup might lead one to suspect a degree of tokenism in this film’s inclusion in the main competition this year. But they are suspicions that the film quickly lays to rest: Timbuktu inarguably stands on its own merits as a distinctive film told with both authenticity and artistry, that makes human and visceral the kind of stories that most Western eyes read only as news headlines, if that.”

“It is a portrait of the country of [Sissako’s] childhood, the west African state of Mali, and in particular the city of Timbuktu, whose rich and humane traditions are being trampled, as Sissako sees it, by fanatical jihadis, often from outside the country,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “Islamist zealots are banning innocent pleasures like music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stonings for adultery. The new puritans appall the local imam, who has long upheld the existing traditions of a benevolent and tolerant Islam; they march into the mosque carrying arms. Besides being addicted to cruelty and bullying, these men are enslaved to their modern devices like mobile phones, cars, video-cameras (for the purposes of uploading jihadi videos to the internet) and of course weapons. Timbuktu is no longer tombouctou la mysterieuse, the magical place of legend, but a harsh, grim, unforgiving place of bigotry and fear.”

“Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a shepherd, lives with his wife and child in the local dunes,” writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. “When one of Kidane’s cows is tangled in a trawler’s net and is killed by an angry fisherman, the incident upsets a peace that could charitably be termed fragile…. Sissako’s methods are confrontational, yet never to the point that you feel you’re watching sacrificial lambs instead of people caught in a horrible situation. In this terrible context, madness and death are blessings. It’s living that’s the curse.”

Timbuktu is “a stark, sense-driven cri de coeur that holds on tightly to its anger amid its ecstatic panoply of sound and image,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. “Better yet, it’s a protest film as interested in its perpetrators as in its victims, studying every passing face for feeling; there’s enough ambivalence on many of them to remind us how prejudice tends to be larger than its practitioners. Among its many virtues, Timbuktu is a rare and welcome portrait of opposing identities in Islam, a religion internally undermined by bad faith.”

“The film’s methods are boldly unorthodox and its constantly alternating moods and shifts in tone from drama to humor, joy to tragedy can be disconcerting,” finds Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter.

“After all the orgiastic brutalities Hollywood indulges in to show the mean streak of the human race, Sissako’s precise, economic, style looks almost monastic, but unsurprisingly obtains a far more powerful effect,” writes Dan Fainaru for Screen Daily.

Cinematographer Sofiane El Fani “creates stately compositions quite removed from the neorealism of frequent collaborator Abdellatif Kechiche, and the music, with its combination of traditional Malian melodies and more Western orchestral accompaniment, is beautifully suited to the images,” finds Variety‘s Jay Weissberg.

More from Jason Gorber at Twitch and, in Spanish, Mónica Delgado for desistfilm.

Updates: “The performances have a starkness that seems to make time stand still in the gravity of the film’s mounting contradictions,” writes Barbara Scharres for “When soccer is forbidden the undeterred men devise a fantastical pantomime game. When dance is forbidden a man performs a lonely improvisation for an audience of one, the village madwoman. When music is forbidden one of the guilty wails her song while being publicly flogged.”

“Few tracts about religious intolerance have ever been this alive to the beauty in their world,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey, “the play of late-evening sunlight across a lake, the nimble joy of a football game the authorities want banned…. This is in no way the remorselessly grim film its subject matter might lead you to expect—it’s full of life, irony, poetry and bitter unfairness. It demands respect, but it also earns it.”

“I can only hope Sissako’s bracingly direct, droll, earnest and politically acute drama serves to set the tone, engagement, and expertise we can expect from the premieres on the Croisette in 2014,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Sissako has a central human story of conflict between two locals framed by the judgment of the visiting radicals, but surrounding that are a disparate series of anecdotes, crimes and punishments, street scenes, transgressions, and idle time. The tone is calm and attentive even though politics of society, gender, violence, and religion are a part of every edit Sissako makes.”

“Sissako concentrates as much on beauty as he does on oppression,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “Only in the home stretch, as dissidents are gunned down and adulterers get buried up to their necks and stoned, does Timbuktu start to resemble a typical social-justice tract. Sissako’s previous films… cut to the sorrowful chase much more quickly, and feel aggressively didactic; this one shows welcome evidence of the love for humanity underlying that despair.”

Sissako “is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and ambitious writer-directors working in film today, and quite possibly one of the best,” writes Geoff Andrew for Sight & Sound. “Sissako understands both the world he’s lived in and cinema itself. His films have always been both memorably magical and supremely honest; [Timbuktu] is no exception.”

Timbuktu is sincere and brutally honest about the destructiveness of fundamentalist law, taking time to show the damage it does to those it victimizes and those who uphold it,” finds the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “But the film is also bluntly single-minded in its aims, ultimately amounting to little more than a loud lament.”

“The beauty of Timbuktu comes from its narrative simplicity,” writes Domenico La Porta at Cineuropa, “from the strength of the acting and from editing which alternates immediate cuts with more contemplative moments, broadly facilitated by the beauty of the frames and the magic and natural lighting of this timeless place.”

Updates, 5/16: For the New York TimesManohla Dargis, Timbuktu is “a mesmerizing mix of mood and tone that holds up an eerie mirror to the 300 or so Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.”

“Sissako takes his time in building to the main source of drama,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies, “and in the process locates comedy in the most unlikely places. The militant Islamists are amusingly inept, verging on Monty Python territory with their vagueness regarding their own mission and the contradictions of their creed. Sissako and his co-writer Kessen Tall delight in precise wording in each of the four local languages—Arabic, French, English, Tamashek. A phone call that in most other hands would have been played straight for tension turns into a daisy-chained, multi-lingual farce.”

Updates, 5/21: “Sissako gives each tale equal weight, which for a time makes the movie seem weight-less,” writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. “It skims from issue to issue; some of the non-professional performances are stiff, gauche, a little impassive. But power gathers near-invisibly. If these victims of religious tyranny appear to offer little resistance it’s because—worst horror of all—resistance is impotent. As so often, those with the vilest beliefs and ideals have the most muscle to enforce them.”

Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot: “Sissako shoots the film in typically unobtrusive style, with his chosen locale’s natural surroundings providing most of the visual interest, seamlessly edited throughout in a classical continuity style to give a traditional sense of drama. Indeed, this may be Sissako’s most classically composed work.”

Update, 5/24: Cohen Media Group has acquired U.S. rights, reports Variety‘s John Hopewell.

Cannes 2014 Index. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.