Cruel fate: a victim in Sissako’s drama.
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Fade to black: everyday persecution and religious fundamentalism in Timbuktu

Ryan Gilbey is left feeling chilled by Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable Timbuktu.

Timbuktu (12A)
dir: Abderrahmane Sissako

One of the sweetest shots in Timbuktu, a film necessarily short on whimsy, shows a football bouncing with a plop-plop-plop down a flight of steps, apparently of its own accord. The ball finds its way on to a near-empty street and into the possession of an armed man, who then inquires of a passer-by whether it belongs to him. The fellow holds up his hands as though denying ownership of an incriminating weapon.

As well he might. The city is in the grip of religious fundamentalists who have added football to the list of activities punishable by public lashing or worse. The one soccer match we see in the film is a hazy affair, halted temporarily by a donkey that plods across the goalmouth. Music replaces the sounds of the players; visibility is compromised by the dust hanging in the air. It feels like a pleasant dream until two men zoom up on a motorbike, their faces obscured by scarves, and circle the pitch once before disappearing. Red cards all round.

The film doesn’t explain anything beyond the bare bones of its central scenario. Characters come and go: a young jihadist dithers when called upon to renounce his old hip-hop life; a driver tries to protect the married woman to whom his boss is making overtures; a hostage is handed from one group of bandits to another with an accompanying bag of medication (“He has two of these in the morning . . .”), which weirdly infantilises him. The writer-director ­Abderrahmane Sissako trusts that his film’s symbols will resonate, that its ellipses will be suggestive enough to remove the need to spell out what happens next. This is a film in which small pieces stand in for a daunting and horrifying whole.

Learning that a city has fallen to Islamic State or that the Taliban have extended their reach is one thing. What Sissako achieves through the gradual accretion of quotidian detail is a suggestion of what that sort of existence would entail. A biker chugs up and down the streets proclaiming through a loudhailer a new law decreeing that women must wear socks and gloves at all times. An adolescent girl is quizzed about who she was talking to on her mobile phone. Unable to provide an adequate answer, she is dragged off as casually as if she were a stray mutt. When we next see her, she is being proposed as a candidate for marriage. Her mother protests. Very well, comes the reply, she can be taken by force instead.

That Timbuktu is tangential in its horrors rather than harrowing is down to Sissako’s deft screenplay (co-written with Kessen Tall) and Nadia Ben Rachid’s nimble editing. In between the vignettes detailing everyday persecution is the story of Kidane (played by Ibrahim Ahmed, aka “Pino”), who has avoided trouble by remaining with his family in their encampment in the sand dunes. Here the jihadists tend not to venture – apart from those carrying out target practice on stolen and presumably priceless statues. There isn’t much violence in the film but the damage wreaked on those objects – a breast obliterated, limbs lopped off, a gaping mouth left smoking from gunfire – serves as a terrible surrogate.

The time comes when Kidane is forced to enter the city. His beloved cow has been slaughtered and he must confront the man who did it. The dotty gag of the cow’s name (GPS) turns sour when Kidane loses his own way, morally speaking, and finds himself at the mercy of the higgledy-piggledy court dishing out arbitrary punishments. One of the town’s leaders looks on and asks the jihadists: “Where is God in all this?”

His question echoes through the picture. Interpreters litter the scenes, helping the townspeople and the jihadists grope their way to some common meaning across fragments of French, English and the ­various Tuareg languages. But there is never the sense that they really understand one another. Kidane has given up on earthly justice; he trusts that God will know what is right and tells his wife with a shrug: “All of this will end one day.” Fading to black provocatively in the final scene, Sissako vehemently resists this interpretation. He withholds closure and saddles us with the sensation that the action of the film is still going on – which, of course, it is. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution