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

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How The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme brought humanity to horror

In memory of a great movie man - and a generous soul. 

Professional distance is important as a journalist. I’ll always be grateful to the editor who told me, as I set off to interview a musical hero, “He’s not your friend; he doesn’t want to be your friend; he’s never going to be your friend.” The funny thing about the films of Jonathan Demme, who has died aged 73, was that they felt like the work of a pal. That was his special gift—not only to tell stories dynamically but to do so with an emotional joy and directness that spoke to a common humanity. This may not be immediately apparent if his biggest hit, The Silence of the Lambs, is the only movie of his that you’ve seen, though even that was intensely humane in a way that its imitators never were.

Demme welcomed you in. In his best movies, such as Melvin and Howard, about the brief, unlikely friendship between a Utah milkman and Howard Hughes, or the screwball thriller Something Wild, which was two-thirds riotous and one-third hair-raisingly scary, you felt you were being invited into some gleeful shindig. The characters might have been people he’d run into, whom he was certain you would find every bit as enchanting as he did, and the soundtrack was littered with these bouncing tunes he’d heard and that he simply couldn’t wait to share with you. The sets and costumes had a thrown-together, thrift-shop feel; you could base an entire fancy-dress party around the garish outfits and hairdos from his delicious Mafia comedy Married to the Mob, while some of the most eye-catching effects in his Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense are achieved with only a springy household lamp and an imaginative use of light and shadow.

Beneath the bristling, bustling surface of each film was an innate curiosity about people. It is obvious in pictures like Citizens Band, his 1977 comedy about CB radio users, and the stormy but sweet-natured family drama Rachel Getting Married, but let’s take that more challenging example of The Silence of the Lambs, which showed how his generous spirit could infuse even the dankest chambers of genre cinema. Thomas Harris, on whose novel the picture was based, had a fairly cut-and-dried approach to issues of good and evil. Demme was more flexible, which is what made him such an interesting choice of director for that material, as opposed to blood-and-thunder merchants like Ridley Scott (who made the sequel, Hannibal) or Brett Ratner (who directed Red Dragon, based on the same source material as the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter).

Demme began from the starting-point that everyone is human, which is how he and the screenwriter Ted Tally and the actor Ted Levine came to shape the portrayal of the killer Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill. Demme described Gumb not as a bad guy but as a “bad guy who is, in fact, a terribly damaged guy whose life has been a disaster”. No wonder he was upset when the film was accused of homophobia despite the fact that he had gone to great lengths to explain in the movie that Gumb is not gay. “The film very clearly says that Jame Gumb spends his life altering himself to escape from the terrible fact of who he is, and how he’s been abused,” he explained. “So it makes sense that if he’s heterosexual, he’ll try being homosexual, and vice versa. But people heard the line about him having a male lover, and saw him looking effeminate, which was enough for some audiences. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Gumb wasn’t gay, so I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals. I welcomed that other viewpoint.”

He was averse to using violence in his films without also showing that it had consequences — what is his greatest movie, Something Wild, if not a demonstration of that very point? “In Something Wild, I was trying to show that if you behave violently, you will taste violence,” he said in 1988. “And I feel there are definite signals in the first half of the movie that the characters had better straighten up or else.” The shots fired by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) at the end of The Silence of the Lambs are not gratuitous or exciting; they really count. “There’s nothing to cheer about when someone is shot dead,” he said. At the end of The Truth About Charlie, his unloved Nouvelle Vague-tinged remake of Charade, he has the hero (Mark Wahlberg) implore everyone to put down their guns. And at the climax of his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the weight of the entire film rests on a single bullet. “To whatever extent the glamorisation of gun violence helps in some way in my country to continue the acceptance of guns, I want to remove myself from that equation,” he said. 

There were many reasons to love Jonathan Demme, not least the movies themselves and the fact that he was a sweet and generous soul. (The L.A. Times critic Justin Chang tweeted that he told Demme: “‘Y’know, you’re really nice!’ I couldn’t help it. He really, really was.” I said something similar as I presented him with my Stop Making Sense DVD—professional distance be damned—and asked him to sign it. He wrote: “Keep on rockin’”.) I can think of one more reason to love him. His family has requested that any donations be made in his name to the charity Americans for Immigrant Justice, which is just another sign that we need Demme more than ever just at the very moment that we have lost him.

 

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.

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