Timbuktu (2014)

Review #1,295

Director:   Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast:  Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki 
Plot:  A cattle herder and his family who reside in the dunes of Timbuktu find their quiet lives, which are typically free of the Jihadists determined to control their faith, abruptly disturbed.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language. Feature
Runtime:  97min
Rating:  M18 for some violence and thematic elements.
International Sales:  Le Pacte

“He can't do anything to help.  It's over.”

One of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Feature in 2015, in a category with films such as the ought-to-have-won Leviathan (2014), Wild Tales (2014), Tangerines (2013), and eventual winner Ida (2013), Timbuktu comes from Mauritania, a country unheard off in the realm of world cinema. 

The director is Abderrahmane Sissako, who is one of the few contemporary African filmmakers working today with a fair amount of international recognition.  His films Life on Earth (1998), Waiting for Happiness (2002) and Bamako (2006) have served in his favour in numerous film festivals worldwide, charting the path for his long-awaited Timbuktu to win two prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. 

In Timbuktu, we are transported to a distant land, filled with endless sand dunes that stretch into the horizon.  Amid the sea of golden sand, we see specks––they are tent-like structures pitched by individual families that are displaced by conflict. 

In another part of the same land, Sissako brings us to what seems like civilization––people living in sheltered homes behind rock walls.  But they are living in fear with a terrorist group controlling their sacred space and enforcing their brand of religious doctrine.  With these two spaces, Sissako brings to the fore arguably the most pertinent problem facing the world today: religious extremism. 

The film tries to navigate the perils of religious militancy through a nuanced and poetic lens, focusing on the human side of things.  The terrorists roam around aimlessly, announcing new doctrines through loudspeakers––what joy do they get out of it, I wonder. 

The people of the ancient city resist, but in subtle ways.  So many things are banned––music, soccer, cigarettes, even laughter, to the point that it becomes absurd.  One of the most unforgettable scenes involves two soccer teams playing the game by imagining there’s a ball with them.  This scene boasts incredible irony and tragedy, but also shows that dignity is bestowed on those who value freedom. 

While Timbuktu largely comes across as interesting, it is never thoroughly compelling.  Perhaps there’s a kind of intended dramatic restraint employed by Sissako, as if he is keeping the lid on a potentially explosive if sensitive subject matter.  I don’t feel very strongly for the film, but there’s a sense of wretched beauty to it. 

Verdict:  It tries to navigate the perils of religious militancy through a nuanced and poetic lens, but while the film largely comes across as interesting, it is never thoroughly compelling.


Click here to go back to Central Station.




Popular Posts