Timbuktu (Cohen Media Group, NR)

timbuktu 75 - CopyIt’s a beautiful, subtle film portraying how the lives of some ordinary Muslim villagers gets hijacked by a group of Islamic militants.


timbuktu 500 - Copy


When I was a kid, “Timbuktu” was used to designate somewhere so distant and remote that it might as well exist only in your imagination. It seemed like the kind of place where you might expect to meet Tintin or Jenny Linsky. Of course, I know better now—Timbuktu is a real city in Mali and has a long history as an important center of Islamic culture and trade.

Timbuktu is also the title of a film directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, a joint French-Mauritanian production that was one of the five finalists for the 2015 Foreign-Language Oscar. It’s a beautiful, subtle film portraying how the lives of some ordinary Muslim villagers gets hijacked by a group of Islamic militants (the film was inspired by the occupation of Timbuktu by the jihadist group Ansar Dine). Such events are typically portrayed in the news media as a clash of political values, but Sissako’s film takes place on a simple, human scale that contrasts the absurdities of the militants’ penchant for extreme and abstract values with the human scale of the villagers’ lives.

That the militants are essentially colonialists who care nothing for the land or the people they occupy is clear from the opening scene, which contrasts the beauty of a running gazelle with the brutality and ridiculousness of the gang of militants shooting at it from a truck with machine guns. Like the gazelle, the villagers (who are already devout Muslims) are outnumbered and outgunned, but refuse to lower themselves to the level of their occupiers who issue ridiculous commands (e.g., women must wear cloth gloves in public, even when cleaning fish, and music is banned, even songs praising Allah) and play with their new, high-tech toys while denouncing Westernism.

Like most bullies, the militants don’t hold themselves to the standards they are eager to enforce on others (their leader likes to sneak cigarettes and visit women under improper circumstances), and this hypocrisy provides comedy early in the film, but also hints at the tragedy to come. Put it this way—not everyone is as lucky as the gazelle, who escapes unscathed from the clumsy attempts of the militants to kill it.

Sissako celebrates the ability of the villagers to rise above the absurdity of the militants’ dictates (games are banned, so they play a sort of shadow soccer without a ball and manage to have a great time in the process) and contrasts brutality of the militants’ response to relatively minor infractions with the Islamic principle of mercy articulated early in the film by one of the villagers. The film’s central tragedy is rooted in the kind of dispute that people have found ways to solve since time immemorial: the need of both herders and fisherman to access the local water supply.

Sofian El Fani’s beautiful cinematography is one of the strongest aspects of Timbuktu, wordlessly contrasting the natural beauty of the Sahel and the simple lives of the villagers with the harshness and absurdity of their occupiers. In fact, all the technical aspects of Timbuktu work together to support the director’s vision, including music (Amin Bouhafa), editing (Nahia Ben Rachid) and production design (Sebastian Birchler). The acting performances (by, among others, Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, and Layla Walet Mohamed) are all subtle and understated, allowing you to immerse yourself in the story. And that brings us full circle—if Timbuktu the city remains to many Americans an abstraction that has no relation to their lives, Timbuktu the film asserts that the people living there are people like you and I who don’t deserve to be victimized by angry people with guns, no matter what the alleged justification.

I can’t say that Timbuktu was robbed of an Academy Award because the Foreign Language winner, Ida, is also a great film. What I can say is that Timbuktu is definitely worth your time. In fact, I prefer it over some of the usual suspects among the Best Picture nominees for 2014, but that’s an argument for another day. | Sarah Boslaugh

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