Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review: Timbuktu

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" is a powerful and often disturbing view of modern day Mali under the rule of extremism and how the presence of jihadists affects the daily lives and, ultimately, well-being of a number of citizens living in the dunes outside the titular city.

There are several stories going on at once in Sissako's film, including one in which a cattle herder's wife staves off the flirtations of a religious fundamentalist's subtle advances, another in which the fundamentalists attempt to seek out and punish whoever is responsible for playing music at night that can be heard on the streets and, most importantly, a fight between the aforementioned cattle herder and his neighbor over the killing of a cow.

One of the most interesting elements of the film, which is very good indeed, is how Sissako humanizes the jihadists, a move that is very clearly not meant to make you sympathize with them. Often, moviegoers want their historical villains - whether it's the Nazis or terrorists - to be painted with broad strokes and represented as pure evil.

Instead, Sissako paints these characters in his film as fanatical and unyielding, but also with distinct human touches. It's when we fail to regard that those who perpetrate cruelties against others are, in fact, human and not literally monsters that we give humanity's darker instincts a pass. The leader of the film's fundamentalists is indeed human - and a bit of a hypocrite, which can be observed as his men announce on the streets via megaphone each day that music, smoking, soccer and many other things are illegal under the "new law." However, this doesn't prevent him from sneaking off and stealing a smoke behind a dune.

At the center of the action is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a sensitive cattle herder with a wife and daughter. When being told that a neighboring fisherman callously killed one of his cattle because it stepped on his net, Kidane confronts the man, a struggle ensues and the fisherman accidentally ends up dead.

Kidane is imprisoned by the jihadists and taken to trial, where he tells those keeping him captive that he does not fear death, but is horrified at the prospect of his daughter growing up without his protection. And protection a child would need in the village in which Kidane and his family resides. A woman is given 40 lashes for singing from her apartment and she is bold enough to sing out as the lash strikes her back. A couple caught having an affair are stoned to death. And a young girl is stolen away from her family by one of the jihadists and her mother is then told that the "new law" favors the needs of the man who stole the girl over the young woman's rights.

"Timbuktu" is an angry film, but it has its moments of humor and rich satire, including the aforementioned smoking scene as well as several sequences during which the jihadists attempt to justify their actions to the local imam, who isn't having any of it.

There's also a woman, whose character is never particularly explained, who wanders the village in colorful robes, carries around a chicken and manages not to be scolded for her refusal to wear a hijab. Her sole existence appears to be to slyly taunt the jihadists and she is likely left alone due to her appearance of being slightly crazy. This is, perhaps, Sissako's way of telling us that retaining human qualities - such as humor or defiance - are one way of living through horrors. "Timbuktu" is a powerful film that is equally absurd, heartbreaking, angry and humane. I'd highly recommend it.

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