Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Salem Dendou, Cheik A.G. Emakni, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, Kettly Noël
MPAA Rating: (for some violence and thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 1/28/15 (limited); 2/13/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 12, 2015
A gazelle gallops across the desert. It's an elegant beast, engineered by time and nature seemingly for the sole purpose of running, and we get a lengthy look at its nimble but forceful stride as it leaves its tracks across a barren wasteland in complete silence.
The shot goes on just long enough for us to take in the animal and the sand, as well as to realize how eerily quiet the scene is. Just at the moment in which we start to wonder what's going to happen here, the soundtrack bursts to life with an eruption of automatic gunfire. We hear yelling, see men in a pickup truck, and note the familiar black flag with Arabic writing as it waves in the wind while the vehicle gives chase. "Don't kill it," one of the men shouts; "Tire it!"
The metaphor that begins Timbuktu has no conclusion. We intrinsically know what will happen: The gazelle, as naturally capable of running long stretches for an extended period of time as it is, will exhaust its reserves, and the hunters will catch it. They have the advantages—a truck that will be able to outlast the beast and the firepower necessary to keep the animal sprinting at full speed. It's only a matter of time and of the patience of those in pursuit.
There's another metaphor that follows the hunt. A group of violent Islamic fundamentalists shoots at tribal masks and statues. This is Mali, a country within a continent that is the birthplace of humanity. The masks represent centuries of a culture. The beginning of the desire of one culture to destroy another lies somewhere between the two.
In a way, the shooting of the masks and the statutes is the conclusion of the incomplete hunting sequence. At the moment in which we anticipate the killing of gazelle, co-writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako (The other screenwriter is Kessen Tall) shifts perspectives. We get a slaughter, but it's of different, more obvious stand-ins for the same things the gazelle represents. From there, the group of zealots moves into the city of Timbuktu, where they work in small but clear steps to destroy the established traditions of the people within it—their rules, their religion, their behavior, their very way of life. It's not violent at first, because, remember, they must first exhaust their prey before they kill it.
The film shifts perspectives once again to find Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a cattle herder living in a tent outside the city with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). The family also care for Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed), a young boy whose father was a "warrior." "Warriors die young," Toya tells her adopted brother. We know the people who have overtaken the city not too far away will either make the local inhabitants part of their system or enemies. Either way, it will make warriors of those who have little or no interest in fighting.
The family once had neighbors, but they have all fled the region, fearing the oncoming jihadists. Kidane's family has migrated more than once, but Kidane is tired of running. We hear those words from him, recall the hunting strategy, and feel a lurch in our stomachs.
The film's approach is meticulous and unwavering. We know violence is coming. It is inevitable considering the increased number of assault rifles that have accompanied the group of self-proclaimed mujahideen who have arrived in Timbuktu.
Their rules, announced each morning in a collection of languages (Arabic, Bambara, French, and English) via a megaphone, are specific and seemingly harmless at first. There is to be no smoking, although Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), one of the group's lieutenants who visits Satima whenever Kidane is away, enjoys cigarettes in hiding. When Abdelkerim scolds Satima for indecency by not wearing a veil in his presence, her answer—that, if he doesn't like it, he should look away—possesses too much common sense for fanatics to comprehend. The local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) argues that he considers himself a jihadist but that the practice should be of the mind, not with weapons. The leader of the extremists (Salem Dendou) is quick with a line from the Quran to counter any religious disputes. When a person makes the rules, there's no way to become a hypocrite in that person's mind.
People breaking a rule against music get an exemption because they are singing in praise of Allah, and a group of boys finds a way around a law against soccer by pantomiming the sport without a ball. A couple of occupiers drive by on a motorcycle, but they know they've been outsmarted.
The rules become vague. The enforcement becomes stricter. The penalties become harsher. The protests continue, but they no longer feel like triumphs. Instead, they haunt, such as when a woman sings in rhythm to the lashes she receives as punishment for singing.
After a disagreement with a local fisherman (captured in uncomfortable but striking long takes, including a distant shot of two men struggling—one for life and the other to escape—set against the lush backdrop of a river), Kidane finds himself trapped in the fundamentalists' system of law. We see that in action after two people are caught committing adultery during Ramadan. Once again, it's a moment in which the silence is broken by a sudden outburst of violence.
Even in its symbolism, Timbuktu is direct, but that's because all of this needs to be said (Here, by the way, is a film for anyone who whines about a lack of outrage from "moderate Muslims" about the co-opting of a religion for violent ends). It's a desperate film about a hopeless situation. Whether one fights or flees, the end result is the same.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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