Film Review: Timbuktu
Diving into the imposed reality of Mali
Through the historically significant Malian city of Timbuktu, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako indulges in the irritating and confusing reality which was imposed upon the city when Islamic fundamentalists took control of it in 2012 (which lasted until March 2013 after a French intervention). While largely fictional, this movie absorbs the viewer into the daily lives of people in the city of Timbuktu and the way it changes as this fundamentalist group attempts to dictate the details in people’s lives. They start to ban music, smoking, and playing football. They start to order and forbid citizens on what to wear. This group enters into the daily life of Timbuktu to assert itself in the finest grains of detail disturbingly quickly, as they claim to hold and impose the truth.
The first sentence spoken in the movie is “Don’t shoot it, just tire it out”, which is said as a group of Islamic fundamentalists try to hunt a gazelle, and symbolizes exactly the fundamentalist group’s effect on society throughout the movie.
Through the use of long panoramic shots, Sissoko is certain not to set a grim mood, upon this already unpleasant reality. But rather, the director reveals the beauty which this city embodies, with shots of the aesthetically attractive sand dunes, or the lake which reflects the glimmer of a setting sun. It is made clear, through the colorful picture provided, that the clay buildings of the city once carried a pleasant tone.
Sissoko and Kessen Tall, the writers of the movie, provide an array of characters which construct a patch-work of the complex reality that exists in Timbuktu. There is an emphasis on embracing the existing diversity, on a multitude of levels. Linguistically, the film comes in five different tongues (Bambara, French, Arabic, Songhay, and English) which force the writers to dedicate a fair amount of time for translation between characters within the dialogue. The writers very cleverly include the character of a ‘mad’ woman, which faces the fundamentalists in her unusual ways. Her existence comes to contrast with the islamists, and remind us that those who claim to maintain their sanity may not necessarily abide by its rules. The story carries a subtle sting of satire which humans often refuge in at times of harsh conditions.
While the viewer may walk into the cinema carrying pre-existing dichotomizations of good and evil, in the back of their mind, the movie comes to brilliantly blur these rigid conceptions we might hold. It doesn’t necessarily try to exploit a tragedy by victimizing the people which have their daily lives disrupted by Islamic fanatics, while simultaneously making sure it doesn’t take on the stereotypical view demonizing the fundamentalists. The movie, rather, humanizes all the existing characters. It portrays those under Islamic fundamentalism as capable of good and evil, while it depicts the fundamentalists as those clinging on a set of strict and very literal beliefs, which they seem to follow blindly, but also come to occasionally doubt them. They sometimes even prioritize their desires by doing the things they forbid others to do. That being said, the writers make no attempt to hide the brutality which the fundamentalists carry as they impose their beliefs on others.
One character included is the imam of the city, who is present to bring-out a contrasting conception of faith, a more peaceful understanding, which he relentlessly and unsuccessfully attempts to invite them to. Through this character, a more moderate understanding is presented, one which may attempt to look deeper into words and find more spiritual understandings.
Outstanding performances are displayed by the actors, as they balance the surges of emotions with the helplessness they embody in facing the banal reality which came to rule their lives. The actors playing jihadists (such as Abel Jafri and Hichem Yacoubi) emphasize a particular arrogance that their roles carry, as they attempt to enforce a truth, which they only see. Meanwhile, the small nomad family living on the outskirts of the city passively resists the fundamentalists by immaculately using their silence to face them. However, if it was not for a quarrel, they would probably continue to use their silence to face them. This family is played by Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulu Kiki and 12 year old Layla Walet Mohamed.
Overall, the director Abderrahmane Sissako provides an opportunity for viewers to immerse themselves, for 96 minutes, into the daily reality of Timbuktu, when it was held by Islamic fundamentalists in 2012. The panoramic shots of beautiful scenery and the use of traditional Malian music which are placed appropriately to suit their visual counterparts, as well as the highly skilled actors, provide a well rounded masterpiece. This piece connects us to the humans of Timbuktu and their horrid reality which many of us ignored as another unfortunate news headline, which we can do nothing about. It is not surprising that this film has come to claim so many international awards. It is definitely a high point for African cinema.