The opening sequence is the metaphor for the entire hour and a half film. Some antelope or deer specimen sprints raggedly across the sand. Men with AK-47s and turbans to keep the dust from their eyes fire at it from a truck bed. The truck guzzles gas and desert miles. Until the film's closing sequence, nothing will move this fast, even the moments of violence in between will pass with the slow pain of an hourglass, perhaps it is not even that, but a kidney stone.
This film nags and obsesses, but somehow manages to pull off such arduous tasks with a sweeping nostalgic beauty. The effect is organic, sewn from the thin veils between man and beast.
And that is the memorable impression of the cinematography in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014). The long shots in the film of the desert and the river render the human lives into grains of sand, at once atomized and nebulous. The films characters lie at rest in daily rituals, until swept up by a mighty wind.
At first, human violence in the film appears to be a symptom of the desert, but the intimacy of close to midrange shots within the desert tents, the village tenements, and the mosque’s walkways acquaint the violence of jihad with disruption. The insistences that women wear thick gloves while preparing and selling fish at market is unnatural not only to their daily work but to their humanity. Thus, migratory ideologies interlope into the lives of people who have moved over the desert for centuries. And, perhaps, that is the danger, the thrill, and the beauty of a place like Timbuktu. As an ancient city, it rests on a desert crossroads, where the world comes together to fall apart.
The comparisons to more prominent filmmakers might be found in the opening scenes of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007), where Llewelyn Moss stalks antelope over a rugged landscape in Texas. In the novel by Cormac McCarthy, he walks amongst the pictographs, the path of his hunt following those who have come before him. His hopes and his fears are part of an ancient lineage. The narrative webs in Timbuktu are also reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu's Babel (2006), but the connections between the different characters’ plots are less contrived, or at least not so self-aware. There is no mythical wampeter in the form of a hunting rifle that makes its way from Japan to Morocco and then launches the bullet that kills an American tourist.
No, in Timbuktu, everyone and everything is of the desert, departing and arriving as grains of sand, revealing that the sand itself is not home to death. For death is something that must be introduced from the minds of men.
Bryan Harvey tweets frequently @LawnChairBoys.