Elegantly artful, gracefully assembled, and ultimately disquieting, Timbuktu is a bitter cry from the heart; a quiet work of savage truth; and a timely film with a powerful message. Patient, restrained, and heartbreaking, it’s a breathing, bleeding reaction to a genuine human rights crisis; a response, a supplement, and a protest to the horrors that flash by on the news.
Along a river on the outer fringes of Timbuktu – a small city on the southern edge of the Sahara that was once an important centre for trade and scholarship under the medieval empire – live Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), along with their 12-year-old daughter, Toya, and Issan, an orphaned boy they have adopted. With one foot in the past and one in the present, Kidane and his family sleep in a traditional open-door tent, but one of their cows is named GPS.
Issan’s boyish inattentiveness and Kidane’s angry feud with a fisherman lead to bloodshed; an angry saleswoman in the marketplace tries to shame her oppressors; a group of boys play soccer on a dirt field with an imaginary ball. It’s remorselessly grim – music, laughter, cigarettes, and sports are forbidden; people are terrorized, flogged, stoned, and shot at point blank range – yet gracefully assembled and appropriately confrontational.
The best political art forges a human connection and never feels didactic or driven by overweening ideology. In Timbuktu, every scene and shift in tone or mood is designed to cut through the stereotypes that divide the world. When we observe a nomadic Tuareg tribesman’s domestic life as filled with familiar strife and comedy, or bored young Al-Qaeda affiliates more interested in debating their favourite European soccer teams than in enforcing Sharia law, we no longer perceive their situation as alien.
These characters are wonderfully nuanced, warm and jealous and petty and fearful: Kidane’s pleas to see his daughter’s face before death may move you to tears. Abdelkerim, the doleful head of the local militia, is just as recognizable and far from a Koran-muttering lunatic: he’s a mid-level, mid-career, semi-corrupt army officer who’s looking out for No. 1, someone who conceals his chain-smoking from his superiors and gloats about his designs on the “enemy.”
In providing audiences a chance to bear witness to unspeakable suffering as well as dazzling defiance, Timbuktu reminds us that ideology is deaf and blind, and the militant threat is nowhere near as great to Westerners as to the people of Mali, Syria, Yemen, or Iraq. That Timbuktu also makes the crucial (heretical) point that Islamic militants are human beings more likely to be driven by greed or lust or power than by zealotry just reinforces its necessity.
Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness, Bamako) actually shot the film on the dunes of neighbouring Mauritania, where he was born. His style is deliberately composed and poetically precise, almost devout or monastic as he depicts visceral trauma without hysterics, expresses outrage with religious oppression, and offering moments of humour and startling beauty. The film’s methods are boldly unorthodox, and its eccentricities plunge its audience from unwavering vulnerability to nihilistic absurdity.
In rare cases, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones. Timbuktu is such a case. Sissako’s vision is so offhandedly seductive, it takes a while before you realize what threat is gathering, and from where. Rather than shock, Sissako envelops us in a heavy sadness as happiness is besieged, then destroyed, by the same species who had created it.
Timbuktu is a meticulous, maddeningly truthful, morally devastating film about ordinary Mali people trying to live under harassment by swaggering jihadists toting Kalashnikov rifles, sinking into an abyss as unrelenting as the sand surrounding them. How to describe what it’s like for a Muslim community under the rule of violent insurgents? It’s repressive, humiliating, treacherous, and tragic, just like for the rest of us. Timbuktu is an act of resistance and revenge that throbs with humanity and asserts the power of secularism.