Deconstructing the human in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu

There is something beautiful, charming, and disturbing about Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film Timbuktu. In many ways, Timbuktu is a contemporary Yeelen; both films sought to represent the realities of an African often unseen by Western audiences, yet nevertheless, in the process, fix their gaze on that Western audience, perhaps, to the expense of the African public it seeks to represent. And this is truly a dead horse in African cinema studies – the question of African cinema’s inherently Western-bound gaze – that need not be further beaten in this response, although part of the reason I believe Timbuktu to be an exemplary film, not only in the field of African cinema studies, but in film studies writ large, is precisely because of its curious relationship to reception. Given that cinema studies is a vastly American intellectual community, and that the United States remains the hub of cinema criticism, scholarship, and innovation, Timbuktu represents a film whose reception and production allow us to better understand the surprisingly dour relationship between American film publics and critical bodies and non-American, non-Western political aesthetics. Sissako, for one, has never been one to yield to the cinematic expectations which filmgoers are prone to carry with them to the film festival or to the screening. One of the most recognizable marks of his auteurship is the ambiguities of plot in his films; as in Bamako, where the central “plot” is the ongoing trial against neocolonial financial manipulation in Africa, flanked by vignettes of a failing marriage, the disappearance of a police officer’s gun, a bedridden man, and fabric dyers, Timbuktu’s “plot” (Kidane’s accidental killing of Amadou and his subsequent trial and execution) is perhaps its most uninteresting element. From the beautiful cinematography which captures the soft transitions between Sahel and Sahara (for desertification in Northern Mali is an undertone which sings beneath the more palpable discourses of the film), to the artful mélange of humor and tragedy which gives the film a dynamism perhaps only attainable by the documentary, Timbuktu is an exemplary film in almost every way, demonstrating to the Western audience something nuanced about life in Africa, particularly in a political climate often beclouded by American media.

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