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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle