REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
The Franco-Mauritanian collaboration, “Timbuktu,” is a stunningly rendered contemporary drama. At the Cannes Film Festival, the topical work won the Prize of Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Prize. The latter accolade is dedicated to the values of life affirmation and journalism. “Timbuktu” subsequently became Mauritania’s first submission to the Academy Awards and was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
The film was shot in the Mauritanian town of Oulata. However, “Timbuktu” draws its title from the film’s putative setting in and close to the Malian city. First settled in the 12th century, Timbuktu was once a thriving spot on the trans-Saharan caravan routes. It attained legendary status for its accrued riches and extensive collection of books. During its Golden Age, the establishment of Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, established Timbuktu as one of the leading academic centers on the African continent. In the late 19th century, Timbuktu and the rest of Mali became part of the colony of French Sudan.
In recent years, Timbuktu has become the site of a volatile, armed conflict between the central Malian government and Tuareg separatists from the north of the country. In April of 2012, an amalgam of MNLA and the Ansar Dine rebels, joined by members of Moammar Khadhafi’s defeated Libyan army, overran northern Mali. They declared Timbuktu and the adjoining area independent of Mali, subsuming it under the unilaterally-created Azawad. These Sunni fundamentalist occupiers imposed strict sharia law on the local populace.
In January of 2013, 200 Malian soldiers augmented by 1,000 French troops supplanted the Islamic fundamentalists. Before they retreated, the rebels vexatiously burned thousands of manuscripts, which reposed at the Ahmed Baba Institute.
“Timbuktu” is set during the period that the city came under the control of Islamist rebels. The film was intended for audiences, who are presumed to be conversant with the recent developments in the region. Those unfamiliar with it will not fully appreciate the ethno-historical context of the film. Nevertheless, the inherently evocative narrative will still resonate for them.
We meet our protagonist, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) as he is lollygagging in an open tent, pitched in the sand dunes outside of Tibuktu. He lives there contentedly with his beloved wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki from the band, Kel Assouf), and twelve-year old daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Kidane owns a small herd of eight cows. They are supervised by a young cowherd, Issan (Mehdi Mohamed), an orphan who lives with Kidane’s family.
Initially, Kidane is unaffected by the take-over of Timbuktu by fundamentalists. These heavily armed interlopers become the self-appointed arbiters of public morality. Bands of these Kalashnikov AK-47 toting men cruise the town. Over handheld loudspeakers, they announce the imposition of harsh new laws. These are then enforced at gunpoint.
These menacing Jehadi purport to be driven by Islamic piety. However, their rules are not the product of Koranic scholarship. Their strictures derive from Hadith extra-textual sources. These arbitrary interpretations are invoked as authority for harsh legal sentences by Sharia courts.
The religious fanatics decree that women must begin wearing socks and gloves in public. At a local marketplace, they demand that a female fishmonger don gloves. The woman heatedly insists that she can’t possibly wash fish and scale them, while wearing gloves. Her protestations are to no avail. She is arrested.
The occupiers outlaw the playing of soccer. In one striking scene, boys run around a soccer pitch with balletic grace. To avoid punishment, these would-be soccer players play a virtual match, going through their paces without the benefit of a ball. In a later vignette, several of the fundamentalists passionately debate the respective merits of certain soccer teams. It becomes apparent that although they have officially outlawed soccer, they are devotees of the sport.
Music and mixed gender get-togethers are also verboten. The audience is treated to a remarkably mellifluous rendition of a tune by female chanteuse (the renowned Fatoumata Diawara) and a male musician, who accompanies her on a traditional African stringed instrument. Suddenly, several Islamic fundamentalists burst into their apartment. The musicians are arrested and brought before a Sharia court. The woman is forced to kneel, then receives forty lashes for singing and another forty lashes for being in the same room as her male accompanist.
An unmarried couple is caught fornicating. As punishment, they being buried to their necks, then subjected to a fatal stoning. This scene was inspired by an actual incident in Azawad during 2012, which involved a stoning of an unmarried couple for unsanctioned sexual congress.
A rebel officer, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), epitomizes the hypocrisy of these Islamic extremists. Although he enforces the prohibitions against smoking, he surreptitiously indulges in the vice. He covets Kidane’s wife, Satima. When Kidane is away from the tent, Abdelkerim makes unwelcome visits there. He resorts to the pretext of advising Satima that she must wear a head covering even in the privacy of her remote desert tent. A touch of magical realism intrudes into the film with the introduction of Zabou, (Kettly Noël), who is a refugee from the 2010 Haitian earthquake. She puts Abdelkerim under a voodoo spell, which causes him to lose control and do an impromptu chicken dance.
An extremist barges into a mosque, wearing shoes and brandishing his automatic rifle. The iman attempts to reason with him, “Where is God is all this? Where is the compassion? Where is forgiveness? You’re traumatizing people, you’re arrogant. What you’re doing to our people has nothing to do with Islam.”
Through the early portion of the film, Kidane is detached from the oppressive influence of the Islamist rebels. When GPS, Kidane’s favorite cow, befouls the netting of a local fisherman, it triggers a chain of events that dramatically changes everything. The angry fisherman shoots the cow to death. When Kidane learns of GPS’s shooting, he goes to confront the man. Over his wife’s protestations, Kidane carries a gun for protection.
Kidane’s argument with the fisherman escalates into a shoving match. Kidane’s gun accidentally discharges, killing his adversary. The wide-angle shot of the aftermath of the confrontation is brilliantly constructed by cinematographer Sofiane El Fani (“Blue Is the Warmest Colour”). Kidane wades clumsily through the shallows of the lake as his victim is consumed with spasmodic convulsions. It echoes the death pangs of the cow that the fisherman shot in an earlier scene. Will Kidane escape the auspices of the stringent Sharia court?
Co-screenwriter/director, Abderrahmane Sissako, was born in Mauritania, then raised in Mali. Between 1983 and 1989, he studied at Russia’s Federal State Film Institute. For the last twenty years, Sisssako has lived in France. Previously, he made two critically-praised films, “A Certain Regard” and “Bamako.”
Although Sissako practices Islam, he evidences little tolerance for the dogmatic members of his faith. Without becoming unduly polemical, Sissako depicts the cruelty of these radical extremists towards their fellow Muslims. According to Sissako, his film, “shows that Islam has nothing to do with barbarism and jihadists. Islam has been held hostage.”
“Timbuktu” is a lyrical and conceptually provocative film, replete with elements of a masterpiece.
***1/2 PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements) 97 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.