Timbuktu – Abderrahmane Sissako (2015)

Timbuktu is a gentle film that concerns itself with violence: physical force, but also the violence of surveillance, repression, and the negation that colonizers bring with them. By gentle, I do not mean that the film is lyrical (although it certainly has moments of poetry) nor that it avoids a protest against a very specific set of outrages; it has a politics, and indeed, was inspired by a desire to inform. What I mean is that the film itself is not an outraged representation, and does not wear its heart on its sleeve, or rather, wave its banner above its head. (Such one-dimensional communications are, in fact, reserved for the factions that the film is taking to task). Rather, like the small gazelle that it takes as its emblem, the film is quiet, graceful, nimble, yet deadly serious in its task, moving quickly and fully concentrated – concerned with getting somewhere, even if that somewhere cannot be specified as anything other than away, and taking the audience along with it.

The film is a portrayal of Timbuktu under sharia law, as dictated by a group of (mostly Arab) jihadis. Inspired by actual events in 2012, Sissako selected Timbuktu to serve as the center of the film for a variety of reasons. First, it was a city of tolerance, home to a heterogeneous mix of Christians and Muslims who had lived in peaceful proximity for centuries. It was also a storied center of learning, a trait which indeed supported and informed such tolerance. Beyond that, Sissako, a native of Mauritania, was raised in Mali, and was shocked by the depredations that befell the country at the hands of extremist Muslim invaders; specifically, it was the report of a young couple being stoned to death in 2012 because they were not married that catalyzed him. The film, then, serves to pluck the city from the obscurity it suffers in the West (where it is synonymous with the middle of nowhere) and to portray a sophisticated, cosmopolitan culture repressed by an invading force. We do eventually see this young couple, and their execution, but getting there is a journey through the gradual steps of control exerted by this “caring” other. Just as Western colonizers patronized African populations with the knowledge of “how to live correctly,” so too do the jihadis, and perhaps more insidiously as well, as the disputes are pitched at the level of doctrinal difference. For the Arab-led colonizers, the matter is one of following the law closely and consistently (although the lie of such an assertion is disclosed in several scenes), whereas for the moderate Muslims of Timbuktu, instruction on how to live correctly becomes a lesson in fear, suffering, and death.

The concept of legality is the real weapon wielded by the jihadis, who use it, along with the calm and rational performance of its application in courtrooms, to legitimize a regime which ultimately allows for nothing save what will replicate its own power and control. This is one of Sissako’s great contributions; he does not portray the jihadis as evil, or even particularly extreme individually. They are most often middle-aged men whose attitude is one of calm obedience, who would more often than not prefer to avoid the regrettable outcomes that their wills impose. The leaders appear intelligent, they remain calm and collected, sure they understand these wayward others – as do many who are convinced of their own piety and purpose. Thus as the film moves along, inexorably portraying the increasingly harsh outcomes for those who do not see why their normal, daily behaviors are suddenly criminal and they impious, we too move from feeling that perhaps these forces can be lived with and accommodated, to understanding that there is little recourse and no way out of the problem except flight, abandonment, or resignation. Early on, we have hope, as the local imam, venerable, truly pious, logical and kindly, convinces the jihadis of a few things: leaving the mosque during prayer, for instance, as well as leaving their weaponry outside. Later, though, in another scene of doctrinal disagreement, we begin to understand, along with him, that he is not dealing with other Muslims, in the sense that they share a worldview grounded in the same text. The invaders define terms differently, and what use are definitions anyway when, ultimately, one side is convinced of its righteousness because it wields the power of physical force and the will to use it? The moderates work from the text to a way of life – the invaders have already decided the way, and draw from the text to give their power a sheen of legitimacy.

This portrayal of life in the city, in which Timbuktu itself is the main character, is one half of the film. The other half deals with a Tuareg family that lives on the outskirts, managing a small herd of cattle. This half of the film gives us a more normative narrative arc to follow, as we move with the family from an ideal life that barely references the invaders to ultimate disaster (although the disaster, as a consequence of sharia, is only a by-product of the jihadis, as they do not directly interfere with the family’s daily life in any significant way). The father of this little household is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), nominally a shepherd of the cattle, but truly a musician and singer. He and his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), have a 12 year old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). There is a young shepherd, Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), who is directly responsible for the cattle; I took him to be Kidane’s stepson, fathered by a previous husband of Satima’s. Other sources refer to him as simply the family’s young shepherd. One day while shepherding, the prized, pregnant cow, named GPS, gets caught up in a local fisherman’s nets while drinking, and the fisherman kills it. This leads Kidane to confront the fisherman with a small handgun. Part of the motivation for this confrontation is the atmosphere of mounting anger and humiliation brought about by the presence of the jihadis (although the fisherman is a local); I also felt that there was a psychological pressure on Kidane to live up to his predecessor, who Issan says was, in contrast, a very good herdsman. Satima tries to convince Kidane not to take the weapon, but he insists, and in explaining his reasoning, he disavows what Satima fears the most – that it will lead to the destruction of the family. Kidane confronts the fisherman, accidentally killing him, and thus, subject to sharia law, is sentenced to die, as he does not have the resources to pay the demanded 40 cattle of blood money required. The confusion over the family structure, while not paramount, does matter, as the psychologies at work within the family do dictate the outcome of the film, in which Satima makes the decision to intervene in Kidane’s execution, leaving the family fragmented and dispersed.

Sissako’s use of the “personal” story does an impressive, and effective, job of serving to illustrate how the repression brought by the invaders casts a wide net of consequences. It also serves as an allegory of the destruction of the “natural,” or native, modes of being, which are seamlessly intertwined with history, the landscape, and animal life. The movie is book-ended by shots of jihadis in a pickup truck imposing, rather than “doing,” violence. In the opening, we see them chasing the aforementioned small gazelle, shooting at it with automatic rifles, not to kill it, but to exhaust it. We then see them using ancient tribal figures and statuary for target practice. The ending repeats this configuration, but collapses the animal, the figurative, and the historical into those now being chased, the remnants of Kidane’s family; like the gazelle, they flee with no further thought, as any sense of continuity or the possible has been eliminated. They are now simply living fodder for target practice, an other that must necessarily be effaced to legitimize the acts of violence already committed. While we do not learn their ultimate fate – exhaustion and submission at best, destruction at worst – it does not matter, as it was preordained from the moment the intruders arrived. What appeared at the start of the film as a progression reveals itself to be what all totalitarian ideologies are – a predetermined destination disguising itself as a journey of discovery.

Four stars out of five

Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh (2014)

Perhaps my faithful readers might guess, based on my previously expressed feelings about bio-pics, what my feelings might be toward Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s recent film which illustrates the life of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner. Or perhaps such readers, faithful or faithless though they be, would rather not guess, and having tired of rhetorical gambits (of which I admittedly might be seen, albeit through a glass darkly, as the demented Erno Rubik), and on the verge of clicking off to less verbose pastures (of which there are admittedly plenty to choose from), might be heard, in a flourish of agitation similar to Mr. Turner’s own, to give a loud grunt and mutter gruffly, “Get on with it Goodrich!” I will admit that this dallying, in a patchy 19th century style, harbors not so much a lack of commentary on the film, but a feeling that such commentary will be, ultimately, banal. Not so the film, as it more than any recent effort makes the past live in a way that is fresh without being revisionist or even very unusual. In fact, aside from the performances, which are distinctive in the way that most of Mr. Leigh’s films tend to be, this could pass for a more burnished than average BBC production. No, it is just that the film does not inspire any radical reaction; indeed, my greatest encomium would be, simply, “go see it.” Some films say something, others simply are. Mr. Turner falls into the latter category in the way that (may God forgive me for the trite comparison) Mr. Dickens novels do. Analysis can be practiced on such works, but what is the point? The reading, or in the this case, the seeing and hearing of them, is the totality of the experience, as there is little to debate or to reinscribe with the stylus of our own intellects (considerable, naturally).

The film takes up Mr. Turner later in life, near upon the death of his own father (and studio assistant) and follows his life, in fairly straightforward fashion, until his own death. We see Turner at work, but unlike many overly-flowery films that focus on the lives of artists, he is neither tormented overmuch, nor is he portrayed as the mere inspired prism through which his experience of the world is refracted. We see Mr. Turner within the landscapes that he translates, and they are digitally created to be ravishing, but rather than communicating a ravishment that serves to inspire, they focus us instead on the singular love Turner had for seeing, for observing closely, and for staking out points of view. There is little that separates such sequences from many conventional films about artists, except that Mr. Turner is not typical, and does not communicate his love for many things conventionally. Neither is he a blackguard, a rogue, or a scoundrel, though – in fact, he is often very cute and lovable, precisely because he is not so in any conventional sense. His love of the world, and the things within, only unfolds gradually, through our observation of Mr. Spall’s keen performance, which discloses psychology without psychologizing, and makes Mr. Turner an enigma without posing any questions to be answered or problems to be debated. He is a man unlike others in his time, place, and profession, and the film gives us enough detail to perhaps posit why this may be, without really caring why it is so. Why does he deny the existence of his children? Why does he travel incognito? What drives him to adopt an unusual style that, while avant-garde, is not openly oppositional? How does he manage to seem both uneducated and taciturn while also being held in esteem as a wit and as a man with opinions both worthy and respectable? What lies in his heart? What does he truly care about? He is portrayed as both a workman-like professional and as someone capable of being transported by visions; as a sharp critic of his contemporaries and also a defender of tradition. He is, in short, like many outsiders, a man who can both inhabit his specific time and place in history and also see outside of it, and himself, to the absurd nature of this habitation. Timothy Spall, giving a tour de force that is of the quiet, incremental variety, must be given full credit here; rarely has an artist been portrayed with such depth and humanity.

The film itself, as I previously mentioned, and like most of Mr. Leigh’s output, is well observed. (Indeed, although I hate to use such an overused phrase, the early part of the film is sumptuous in the level of its period detail). I have tended to like Mr. Leigh’s films when they are of the darker, more modern variety, but it is often hit-or-miss. Sometimes, as in his early TV features (such as Spall’s first collaboration with Leigh, 1982’s Home Sweet Home) or in Naked (from 1993), the verisimilitude provided by Leigh’s famous working methods provide realities and truths that are harrowing and heartbreaking; other times (as in 1996’s Secrets and Lies), the films feel like huge agglomerations of mannerisms, tics, and characterizations that can veer toward the patronizing or stereotyped. Mr. Turner follows neither path; indeed, it is gentle and self-effacing. It does feel a little long, especially in the last third, which is mostly devoted to Turner getting old and traveling back and forth to his common-law wife (Mrs. Booth, whose name he takes) in declining health. There is little reason that we must stick with the artist until death simply because death makes for a natural ending point to the “story.” All the same, the final shots of the film are penetrating, and sad. Here, we see the man in full, not in the sense of warts and all, or in the sense of good and bad, but instead as a star, a light-bringer who, despite his gruff style and sometimes irresponsible interpersonal behavior, brought meaning and purpose to others. To the one he shone upon, the gift brought happiness and the purpose of life was reinforced; to the one he turned away from, he bequeathed sorrow and loneliness. The artist, more than any other figure, is tasked with the burden of being “true” to him or her self. We begin, by the end of the film, to see that perhaps for Turner this is the key to his behavior, both the positive and the negative. The coda of the film is deep in the best possible way – again, it simply shows that the gift was also a curse, and that knowing such a man was both a pleasure and deeply painful. The sun shines, that is its task; it makes visible and does not judge what it illuminates. It is objective – not impartial, or fair, or balanced. It is prior to such categories. “The sun is god” – but it is hard to be a god.

Four stars out of five

Norte, the End of History – Lav Diaz (2014)

Lav Diaz is considered a practitioner of “slow cinema” – along with directors such as Lisandro Alonso, Bela Tarr, and Theo Angelopoulos. Somehow the “movement” has been defined as being minimalist, lacking much in the way of traditional dramatic structure or narrative, and, in some quarters, is considered antagonistic to the audience. Personally, I think the category is faddy and a bit pretentious, riding on the “I’m more authentic/sensitive/astute than you are” pieties of the slow food movement (among others). Then again, dear observant reader, you might have noticed that I’m a bit of an atavistic grouch, so take such food for thought with a grain of sun-dried sea salt. The observational mode, wherein the viewer does different work (I will not say more, because I think classical Hollywood film making requires an equal investment in viewer attention) – building a narrative in concert with a portrait of time experienced more phenomenologically – has been around as long as cinema has. What is now lumped into this category in the past were simply called “art films,” and included at least much of the work of the European new-waves and, to some extent, Neorealism. These films tend to be more concerned with the experience of time passing, and with lived reality, rather than dramatic structure.

Norte does not feel terribly slow, nor terribly different from other art films that tackle the lives of fairly ordinary people. The story (yes, there is one) has superficial similarities to Crime and Punishment: an intellectual adrift in his existential crisis kills a pawn lady and her daughter as a challenge to himself and a rebuke to his social position, and the good husband of a struggling family suffers for it in his stead. The first hour or so of the film follows the intellectual, a law school dropout, within his milieu, and then switches for the bulk of the film’s remainder to the family, fragmented by the crime. We see the husband in jail, slowly becoming beatified and transformed (he was already good, but becomes more so), while his wife, their children, and her sister struggle to get by and deal with the separation. The film does not lack drama; alterity reemerges in the final half-hour or so and offsets the “slowness,” or rather the habitual daily rhythms, established earlier, in ways that reconfigure our sense of the protagonists and their futures. (The last shot can be read as either slightly hopeful or despairing in a fashion that would make a Neorealist proud). Diaz does a great job of capturing the sense of time passing in a palpable way, the characters shifting as existence weathers and, to some extent, redeems them. Highest marks go to the audio; like much slow cinema, Diaz eschews music and favors seemingly ambient sound. It is mixed and layered so well that in some sequences it builds invisibly, but with more purpose and complexity than the visuals, with a high level of detail. He is also a master of shooting at night, capturing the nocturnal exhale of the earth, or the electric hum under the solitary smoker’s contemplation, as well as anyone. The climaxes of the film’s various lines were my only reservation. Diaz is not jerking viewers around, there are good reasons for resolving things as he does, but it also feels a little like he is jumping from one trope to another: art film as observer of lived reality to art film as deus ex machina, meter of the absurdity and impersonality of the universe. There’s no reason not to see it, friends, it’s on Netflix.

Four stars out of five

The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five

Two Days, One Night – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (2014)

I have only seen a few of the Dardenne brothers’ films – I know, time for the thumbscrews – but Two Days, One Night is more uplifting and less dedicated to sober realism than past efforts. Per usual for them, the film centers on working-class people living close to the edge, but the fact that one is Marion Cotillard and the other is the most supportive husband in the world raises this to an almost Hollywood level of good feelings and redemption. Cotillard plays Sandra, who gets notice on Friday that her job is to be eliminated, voted out by her co-workers in favor of an end of year bonus for themselves; depressive and self-effacing type that she is, she has to be goaded into fighting for her job, first by a friend in the company (who convinces the boss to allow a new ballot on Monday morning) and then by her husband, who convinces her to contact her co-workers directly over the weekend and lobby for her job. The film takes place over Saturday and Sunday, as she seeks out and attempts to convince said co-workers of her value, which she herself is unconvinced of. Without her job, though, she and her husband risk slipping back into the public housing they have only recently lifted themselves out of, and she backwards into a likewise depression. In being forced to speak for herself, Sandra comes to understand something not only of her own self-worth, but of the worth of colliding with all types of people, no matter the outcome; indeed, the film is strongest as a portrait of how work fragments and alienates people from each other, but also how it can form bonds and renew possibilities, even when antagonisms are the surface result. Her visits form an overall portrait of the working life, and some of her encounters are incredibly affecting – as with the co-worker who bursts into tears, hoping for her to win the vote and keep her job even though it would be a financial “disaster” for his family, as he is the sole breadwinner. It is within the material reality of these interactions that the film excels; in the macro, a definite moral emerges – that fighting or standing up for yourself is its own reward, and leads to happiness and hope – that while doubtlessly true somehow still feels slight. It never feels pat, though, or easy, which does matter. Cotillard gives a good performance, but not an amazing one; her self-hatred and destructiveness felt contrived to me, and a few key scenes centering around those tendencies could have been usefully cut (it seems like piling on after a certain point). The film’s climax has its own climax, a choice that one can see coming from a mile off, but even here, the almost Christian morality works rather than grates, and resolves into a genuinely feel-good conclusion. As for the film’s construction, it is solid, as is all the Dardennes work, but their style has gotten to the point of practically being an anti-style – “the official international hand-held camera vérité style deployed when keeping things real.” Perhaps take a flight of fancy sometime, bros, especially given that this film hews close to the terrain of fable?

Four stars out of five

Goodbye to Language – Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

I’d recommend Goodbye to Language even if it were horrible, simply because it is Godard in 3D. It is not horrible, however, and resides aesthetically somewhere at the middle point between Godard’s relatively more “normal” late narratives and his video work a la JLG/JLG and Histoire du Cinema. His use of 3-D is easily the most interesting I’ve seen (in a “mainstream” release), and the film is quite funny too. Spoiler alert: the juicy fart Foley work in this rivals the Wet Hot American Summer DVD for over-the-topness.

Four stars out of five