Of Grace and Timbuktu

Of Grace and Timbuktu

The bomb dropped pretty early: Grace of Monaco opened the 67th Cannes Film Festival on May 14 to a collective howl of international critics.

Australian actress Nicole Kidman arrives for the screening of 'Grace of Monaco' and the Opening Ceremony of the 67th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, 14 May 2014. (EPA photo)

Catcalls, giggles, laughters - all those noises that weren’t supposed to be heard in a film about a damsel in distress, a porcelain-skin damsel in a fairy-tale marriage to boot. On the red carpet of the opening night, Nicole Kidman dazzled despite the grey clouds rolling in from the Mediterranean, but on the screen no one can save that piece of pointless fluff (which opens in Bangkok in June). Bad news? Not really, because from here we can only go one way: Up.

Grace of Monaco has nothing to do with feminism, unless it’s barbie doll feminism, which doesn’t sound like feminism to begin with. Anyway, Cannes makes a point of highlighting the female presence this year, with the misfired Grace, and particularly with Jane Campion — the first woman to win the coveted Palme d’Or with The Piano in 1993 — heading a panel of jury that’s made up of five women and four men. At the press conference on Wednesday, Campion talks about “inherent sexism” in the movie industry. “The guys get to eat all the cake.” She went on to add that, of the nearly 2,000 films submitted to Cannes (around 50 are chosen each year), only seven percent are made by women.

There are two films directed by women in the Competition: The Wonders by Italian Alice Rohrwacher and Still the Water by Japanese Naomi Kawase. The rest is new works by mostly established, mostly European, and mostly white male filmmakers, quite a few of them 70 years old.

That said, after the (dis)Grace debacle, things picked up and the glitz volumed down on Wednesday evening with the press screening of Timbuktu, the new feature film by Abderrahmane Sissako, the sole African in the Competition. Sissako last came to Cannes in 2006 with Bamako, a quietly biting film about a mock trial in a muddy courtyard in which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are tried for their mismanagement of Africa. The new film, Timbuktu, tells a harrowing story of a society being terrorised by a force of ignorance disguised as moral authorities. The terror, however, doesn’t strike hard and fast; this is a serene film lulled by the gentle wind that hardly ruffles the marshmellow-like sand dunes of Mali. In Timbuktu, strangers from foreign lands arrive and impose Islamic law on the population. Music is forbidden, football is forbidden, cigarettes are forbidden, naked faces and naked hands are forbidden, and the way the film shows this gradual erosion of simple human freedom is frightening and heart-aching. Without having to inform us, we know this is based on a true story — a story that’s still happening the minute this film is being shown.

A realist, Sissako allows a touch of visual poetry to make his points, and while some of them feel awkward, others lift the narrative off as if with wings: when a group of boys play football without actually having a football — to prevent the fundamentalists from arresting them — the beautiful game becomes the saddest game on earth. We’ll soon forget Grace and Monaco, but Timbuktu, without trying too hard, will make sure we remember Africa.

Timbuktu tells a harrowing story of a society being terrorised by a force of ignorance disguised as moral authorities.

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