Have You Heard From "Timbuktu"? Review

Where is God in all of this?

I paraphrase the director of Timbuktu (2014), Abderrahmane Sissako: you can read "music is prohibited" but that is an abstraction, but when you see how music is prohibited, you understand what it means. If you are a westerner--and one suspects that is underinclusive--to see and understand is also to be outraged. However, there's a great deal more to it than that. The people of Timbuktu, a small city in Mali and former trading hub, were used to playing their music and sharing it, living their lives as best they could. Then, from 2012 to early 2013, an Islamist group, with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), took control of Timbuktu and instituted sharia law. People left, people stayed. Tyranny never lasts forever, but people don't live forever. Even then, life under tyranny is only a half life.

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives a simple existence in a tent outside of Timbuktu with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). His main concerns are for his family and his cattle, especially prized cow GPS. Inside Timbuktu, an international cadre of Al-Qaeda members have taken control and enforce a strict form of sharia that is unsettling those who live there. One woman, a fish seller, pushes back against the Islamic Police who would force her to wear gloves that would interfere with her work. Soccer is forbidden, so the boys play without a ball. Music, even when it praises God, is forbidden and the police roam the city trying to pinpoint its source. One Al-Qaeda soldier, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), takes a liking to Satima and comes by the tent while Kidane is not around. When a dispute between Kidane and a neighbor turns deadly, it brings him into the new government's orbit and their justice.

This is a thought-provoking film. There's so much material for comparison and contemplation. Abdelkerim smokes, everyone knows he smokes, and yet it is forbidden for everyone else. Soccer is forbidden, but the new recruits argue as strenuously about who the greatest teams and players are as any European. Comparisons to Orwell's 1984 (1949) and Nazi/Soviet totalitarianism are everywhere. The ease with which the young rebel and feign obedience is encouraging and depressing just like the novel. The atmosphere of fear and distrust infects everything and yet the young adapt, accepting the new rules as a thing to be avoided. How humiliating, if they ever knew it, for these solemnly espoused laws to be looked upon the same way as sneaking into a movie or swearing. There's a Hobbesian truth somewhere in there where children assert the laws of nature and make these adults seem so silly if they weren't brutal and humorless. Then there is the incredible irony that the army of foreign invaders who impose their worldview were, at least in part, formed to destroy "westerner" colonizers and their culture. One could find some moral victory in that if it didn't cost a generation destroyed.

The director, Abderrahmane Sissako, who wrote the screenplay with Kessen Tall, clearly wanted to humanize and, to some degree, de-politicize the situation. But the film is too well-described to do that. Perhaps it effectively shows that these jihadists are human, but not in a good way. All I see is control issues, jealousy, and anger. But perhaps my views on these issues are too strong. Perhaps you'll see a different story and a different way through. All, with patience, will see a beautiful film.

Bonus features

A trailer and an interview with Sissako at the New York Film Festival.

"Timbuktu" is on sale June 23, 2015 and is rated PG13. Drama. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Written by Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall. Starring Abel Jafri.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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