Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Timbuktu Movie Review

The global fight against implementation of Sharia law and the struggle against Islamofascism is given a very different perspective in Abderrah Sissako’s striking and thoughtful Timbuktu. In 2012, militants took over the city in Mali and laid down new laws regarding dress codes for men and women, music performance, smoking, and adultery. They also make clear what some punishments might be.

The city of Timbuktu is cosmopolitan. It is made up of people from many different places and cultures, they speak several different languages. The absurdity of foreigners walking into town and trying to create a new uniform culture is certainly on Sissako’s mind. There is no shortage of absurdity in Timbuktu including the hypocrisy of those who are meant to enforce the new laws. Football is not permitted but three soldiers fiercely debate whether Barcelona or Madrid have the better team. And the kids play a gorgeous game of soccer with no ball. They rely on their imaginations and ingenuity to have a good time. It is one of the film’s most sublime moments. Then as if to call to attention to just how ridiculous it is, a donkey wanders across the pitch. This was one of the greatest sequences in a film full of them.


For the most part, the story by Sissako and Kessen Tall is composed of vignettes loosely bound together by common characters. There is a Berber couple living in a tent outside the city. They have a daughter and their principal source of income is from a small herd of cows tended by a young boy. Another threat involves a woman who is asked to be the wife of one of the soldiers. He and the elder believe they are following God’s will by forcing the marriage. She and her mother do not want it. The would-be husband thinks it should be enough that he asked nicely, but he’ll use force if they don’t bend to his will. It’s a perfect little microcosm of the greater issues in the city. The implementation of sharia law as depicted in the film made me think of Nazis or any other fascist group we’ve seen in the movies storming into town and announcing via megaphone the new laws. Of course Islamofascism isn’t really any different than countless other forms of fascism the world has seen.

The beauty of Sissako’s film is the way he draws laughter (or tragic chuckles) from the audience thanks to just how hypocritical and ridiculous so many of these circumstances are. This is one of the quietest films I can imagine about such a violent group and difficult topic. Sissako focuses so much on the beauty and serenity of the landscape. When he’s not doing that, he’s spending time with the characters for long conversations under a tent or in a mosque, one of the many places where people stand up to the oppression.

Timbuktu finds grace in tiny moments of defiance: the woman who refuses her daughter’s hand; the imam who shames the invaders for wearing shoes and carrying weapons in a mosque; the couple, stoned to death for adultery, who don’t scream or beg; the husband and father willing to face execution because he is at peace with God. This is where the heart of Timbuktu lies. It’s not so much about exposing injustice or saying these guys are bad (everyone knows that already), it’s about showing how humanity can overcome monsters.

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