Let Him First Cast a Stone
Winner of the François Chalais Award at Cannes and selected for Toronto and now in its U.S. première at the New York Film Festival, Timbuktu/Le chagrin des oiseaux combines the immediacy of real current events and people; the tenderness of love, humor and hope portrayed by an ensemble of professional and first-time actors; and in DP Sofiane El Fani’s lens the beauty of desert landscapes and faces.
Although the interlocking tales end in technical tragedy, there is yet a feeling that spirit will win out, like nature and the cycle of a gazelle that opens and closes. Through a translator at the NYFF Q&A Mali-born director/co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako emphasized Africa’s oral tradition of griot, the story teller, and the importance of the father but the ultimate strength of the women both sane and deranged in the male-dominated cultures. And the indomitable human heart, as in the random man who winds up removing his long trousers when ordered to roll up the cuffs and the woman who offers her hands and a knife instead of being forced to wear cloth gloves to sell fish.
Mauritania’s first-ever language-other-than-English Academy Award submission, the ninety-seven minutes actually have a few funny seconds of the English needed to bridge different mutually incomprehensible languages, but are mostly in official French, Arabic, Bambara and Songhay. Momentary softness in a stern jihadist leader-judge-and-jury is immediately followed by “Don’t translate that.”
Thousand-year-old legended Timbuktu rose to wealth and prominence as a commercial and Islamic educational center but wars, conquerors and droughts have reduced it to thirty-two-thousand souls in crumbling baked mud structures on the southern fringe of the Sahara in overwhelmingly Muslim Mali. The film does not detour into outrages like the senseless burning of the irreplaceable library there but concentrates, instead, on the criminal effects of the 2012 takeover by fundamentalist fanatics and goons from outside and their anti-human interpretation and enforcement of Sharia codes.
Holy war totalitarianism brooks no joy. There are to be no bare-headed or sockless women, in the face of which local loca Zabou (Kettly Noël) parades her finery and rooster; music is forbidden, and armed Islamic Police track down songs praising Allah as well as young people who gather in happy singing to strings that brings forty public lashes; there are to be no sports, while soldiers argue about their favorite European footballers, an ownerless ball bounces down the street, and there is a wonderful match “played” sans ball on a pitch of sand; adultery is a capital offense, smoking is outlawed, and while a stoning to death is shown but muted by current screen standards, jihadist enforcer Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) sneaks cigarettes and covets another’s wife.
The center is the sweet minority Taureg-Berber family of herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka singer Pino Desperado), strong silent wife Satima (singer Toulou Kiki) and the soul of their hard life, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed, a twelve-year-old delight who pestered her way into the rôle and inspired the character’s age) and her herder playmate Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed). Their love and mutual support are palpable in the unforgiving scrub and dune barrenness already abandoned by all other friends and neighbors.
Amadou is a neighbor, too, a fisherman who, parallel to the cattlemen vs. sheepherders of classic Westerns, objects to the quadrupeds that invade his river and tangle nets. Tragedy ensues, unbearable sorrow but enriched by the spirit of people, the majesty of nature, and cinematic moments like the distant view of the father staggering towards one bank of a river as destiny dies struggling to reach the opposite side.
(Released by Cohen Media Group; not rated by MPAA.)