Yesterday I watched two films that upon reflection could not appear less alike. Since the reviews and essays on Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu began emanating out of Cannes last year, I have been very excited about this film – if anyone asked me what I was most looking forward to in the coming months, the majority of time the answer would be Sissako’s latest – and I wholly intended to write a piece discussing the film in relation to the discourse surrounding ISIS and Islamist extremism. Yet, as I will now explain, there were some complications. My original plan was that I would watch Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014) in the morning and Timbuktu afterwards; the former for pleasure, the latter to write about. However, while watching Clouds of Sils Maria, I found I had so much to say about the film and not enough time to think about it – before Timbuktu began playing – that I was overly preoccupied with the first film while the second started. As the Islamists stormed the city of Timbuktu, I snapped out of this preoccupation with Clouds, yet as Sissako’s film finished, I had a burning urge to talk about Assayas’ film, whose complexity and energy momentarily overwhelmed Sissako’s still, remarkably peaceful – the brutal subject matter notwithstanding – human drama. This is the inherent danger of seeing two films in quick succession, the two become entwined, colliding against one another without breathing space or true demarcation. (I write this on the morning before Sheffield Doc/Fest is set to begin, where four or five films in a row will be the norm.)
As the two films have become enmeshed and intertwined in my mind, I’ve decided to write about both, the first in true Pauline Kael style (without notes), the second with help from the near incomprehensible scribbles scrawled in the darkness of the cinema screen. I have spent at least half an hour trying to connect the two into some sort of coherent argument and yet if such a coherent argument exists it is lost on me. The most I can say is that each film shares a deep interest in landscape and place, ranging from the postcard-like shots of the beautiful Swiss Alps of Clouds to the blazing, dehydrated desert scenes of Timbuktu. Yet landscape in these films appear not as mere pretty vistas, captured by their respective directors and offered to the audience as part of a sightseer’s travelogue, but as nebulous and obscuring, at times serene and tranquil, at others sinister and disturbing. In Clouds of Sils Maria, natural weather phenomena becomes alive, a snake slivering through the Maloja pass, haunting and eerie. In Timbuktu, it immediately appears that the landscape has been entirely overrun by Islamists on jihad; the city and surrounding locales, captured and subjected to the will of the oppressor. But like the the population of Timbuktu, obstinate and unafraid of the this newfound military presence, Sissako ignores their attempted domination, finding beauty in the landscape, emphasising the clash of impoverished soil and glistening water, shooting farmland and urban spaces in boiling hot colours with a real aesthetic pleasure.
Clouds of Sils Maria is the type of film that academics, especially those of the Movie generation, would adore: a film of great thematic complexity with many hidden depths to uncover and explore. It is a film that breaks through the confines of screen – alluding to much outside itself – and occupies a space between fiction and reality, fully aware that it is a film, that Juliette Binoche is in a way playing herself, and that the legendary Wilhem Melchior, fictional writer of the film’s central text, Maloja Snake, is an amalgamation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ingmar Bergman. It is a film designed for Juliette Binoche, one which aims to represent a distinctly female experience: being a successful actress apparently past her prime, too old for the parts that brought success and fame, but with a genuine determination to continue acting, to not allow the film and theatrical industries to decide when to throw her on the scrap heap.
Whereas Timbuktu promptly appears more straightforward: intensely political and culturally relevant, an attempt to talk about the increase of Islamists on the African continent from a variety of viewpoints. Despite Sissako’s depiction of the irrationality of the Islamists – who endeavour to implement Sharia law on a community of audacious and unyielding peaceful Muslims in Timbuktu – he allows for more than the one-sided depiction of extremists that would be home to a Western tabloid. In one powerful scene, Kidane, a civilian farmer, seeks revenge on Amadou for the murder of his prized cow GPS in an act of barbarity arguably more upsetting than the hideous crimes enacted by the Islamists. In the most stunning image of the film, we watch Kidane slowly remove himself from the writhing, dying body of Amadou, retreating back into the vast lake, which shimmers in the orange and yellows of dusk, heading towards his fate which will undoubtedly be at the hands of the militant Islamists.
If Clouds of Sils Maria is about role playing, performance and the blurred relationship between fictional and real characters, Sissako also draws a parallel between such conflicted identities in Timbuktu. During the filming of a recruitment video, one seasoned Islamist directs a younger apprentice, showing him how to act for the camera, how to convey the indifference and detachment central to the Islamist character. As their amateurism and lack of confidence begins to seep through the distant expressions of the Islamists, we soon realise that it is all an act, a form of role-playing, that the prohibition of cigarettes, music and playing football is driven not by religious belief but to convey the illusion of power.
Throughout Timbuktu I was surprised by a number of things. I originally expected the film to emphasise authorial presence, to act like an art film and to foreground aesthetics at the expense of narrative. In reality, Timbuktu is relatively fast paced with a few extended visual sequences. It is first and foremost a deeply human drama with some exceptional moments and a film with the power to elicit great emotion, empathy and respect for the town’s fearless inhabitants, who are merely trying to enjoy their lives amidst great conflict. Clouds of Sils Maria on the other hand, is a self-confident and perceptive, postmodern art film which stretches deep down into questions of fiction, fantasy and reality. I ideally would like to view both again and perhaps on further inspection I will see more similarities between the two.