Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review - Timbuktu

December 10, 2015

TimbuktuMauritania, 2014

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu offers viewers a peek into a world that is often intentionally kept from public view, and as such, it is both valuable and timely. It weaves its tales slowly and meticulously, and this enables viewers to see its characters as fully realized human beings. Even the film’s villains are revealed to be much more complicated that the facades displayed on propaganda videos or in news reports. In fact, much of the film’s beauty can be seen in quiet moments that take place away from the prying eyes of authorities. It is in such moments that many of the film’s antagonists reveal their hidden passions, and as we watch them, it is not lost on us that these are the same passions that they deny to other people at the barrel of a gun.

The films takes places Timbuktu, which is located in central Mali. According to Wikipedia, the area fell under the control of the Islamic rebel group Ansar Dine in April 2012 and immediately began enforcing sharia law. Timbuktu works as a documentation of the conditions at the time, but also as a view into what is probably going on in other areas of the world that have come under the control of similar groups, though perhaps to a much lesser degree.

The film could easily have focused on one family during these difficult times, but instead it elects not to limit itself to such a centralized narrative. Instead, it steps back and shows viewers daily life from multiple points of view. We see the perspectives of the area’s longtime residents, in particular, a cattle herder (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) who lives with his wife and daughter outside the main town; we see the area’s spiritual leader, whose calm in the face of tyranny is truly amazing to behold; and we also see the occupiers, men who stalk the city from morning to night seeking to enforce their particular brand of religion.

It could be said that the film is divided into three parts. In the first segment, we see daily life in Timbuktu, with its never-ending pronouncements of new rules, the constant presence of guns, and its eerily quiet streets. It is as if all the joy has been stolen from people’s lives, and there are several moments in this part of the film when I actually worried about the safety of characters who had obviously reached their breaking point.

In the second part, we see the inconsistencies of the rebels. Many of them are young men who had normal lives before they committed themselves to jihad, and in many cases, we see that they are unable to completely let go of their prior interests. Many of the scenes in this part of the film are filled the kind of sadness that comes from seeing people whose biggest delight has been withheld from them. In one particularly moving scene, a former musician is asked to denounce the music form that he connected with all his youth, yet all he can do is stare at the camera in silence, his eyes displaying the kind of melancholy that comes from having to deny a part of yourself. In another scene, a character dances to a piece of classical music that plays only his head, and it seems obvious that in another life he would have made a living on the grandest of stages.

To me, it was this part of the film that was the most interesting, for it expands the audience’s view of the kind of character that is all too often pigeonholed or presented in the blandest or cruelest manner imaginable. Here, we’re given a chance to see an enemy as multifaceted, and this evokes pity for what they once were and could possibly have been and scorn for what they have become. It’s eye-opening to say the least. In the film’s finale, the full horror of the situation is made clear, and hardly anyone is untouched by violence.

Some of the film’s storylines are a tad too predictable, yet what the film occasionally lacks in originality is more than made up for in emotion and complexity. I correctly predicted that a character would find himself sentenced to death, yet I did not predict the emotion with which he would speak of his child or the conflicted feelings that would cross the face of one of his oppressors. Under different circumstances, it is easy to imagine them as close friends. The film also has a slightly awkward ending, one that relies too much on symbolism and only became clear to me upon further reflection. This seemed unnecessary, yet did nothing to diminish the power of those final moments. In the end, Timbuktu is not an easy film to watch at times. It is however essential viewing, for it challenges viewers, and, like few films before it, has the power to complicate our perception of evil. And I for one am glad it did. More films should. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

*Timbuktu is in French, Arabic, Bambara, English, and Songhay with English subtitles.

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