On first glance at the plot synopsis for Timbuktu, one might expect a film that’s staunchly anti-religion. In the hands of Abderrahmane Sissako however, this depiction of the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu is given the compelling nuance you’d expect from an established filmmaker. In this bracing drama, the problem lies not within religion itself but the totalitarian power that it can afford.
Timbuktu is a portrait of a city under siege. Drawing inspiration from real life events (the 2012 occupation of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine), it shows the imposition of strict Sharia law and how it affects a population. The main plot centers around a man named Kidane, who lives in the dunes on the outskirts of Timbuktu with his wife, daughter and a young shepherd who is effectively his son. One day, an unfortunate incident occurs which precipitates a fatal confrontation between him and a local fisherman. As a consequence of his action, Kidane must now face the harsh judgment of new laws which leave no room for forgiveness. Meanwhile, others suffer in the nearby city, as their peaceful lives are altered by an oppressive system which benefits no one.
The peaceful existence of this region’s inhabitants is the first impression you get while watching Timbuktu. Everything seems to occur at an almost languid pace, where even the city setting would seem provincial to Western eyes. As a director, Sissako is known for his socially conscious, human stories and his affinity for these people and their land shines through once again in Timbuktu. His camera captures the landscape beautifully, while the characters are illuminated with utmost empathy and warmth.
When the numerous intrusions by the jihadists occur therefore – to punish any instances of music, female liberation, sport or general exuberance – their actions (lashes or worse, death by stoning) feel nearly demonic in intent. Once scene in the early stages of the film is particularly telling. A group of the jihadist men enter a mosque with weapons in tow and one of its many occupants addresses them, asking them how they could enter a house of God with shoes and weapons. One of the rebels simply responds, “We can. We’re doing Jihad.”
All throughout the plot, the screenplay is filled with similar scenes of clear-eyed honesty. There’s a strong satirical bite, as it shows the hypocrisy of using religion to inflict warfare on peaceful people who in many cases, are already pious. Not only does Sissako use his brilliant dialogue to convey his message, he also crafts beautiful moments with subtler acts of defiance. In one scene, a group of young men play imaginary soccer, while another sees a woman singing through a beating as she’s being punished for doing just that.
Despite all the film’s horrors, Sissako ensures that the beauty of humanity still shines through. In that regard, he’s aided by talented cast. As Kidane, Ibrahim Ahmed is utterly heartbreaking as his character comes to terms with his hopeless situation. Among the other supporting players too, none strike a false note.
Ultimately, the various narrative threads don’t sufficiently converge to unleash the full impact of the material, but Timbuktu is devastating nonetheless. This is a potent cautionary tale from a region that’s underexposed in world cinema. The “important” label gets thrown around for many films, but this one truly fits the bill.
Timbuktu will be released in select theaters on January 30, 2015.
Timbuktu is the Mauritanian submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.