Every individual is casted into an arena of competing ideologies when they enter this world whether they like it or not. It is how humanity functions, with perceptions and approaches to one definable reality that will ultimately determine how you behave and act. The coercion onto which these ideologies apply themselves on you can vary and throughout history the degree of such coercion has reached to the point of savagery and fear. In the film “Timbuktu,” by French-Maurituan director Abderrahmane Sissako, such coercion is applied by fundamentalist jihadist who gradually occupy the title city. The inhabitants must obey or suffer dire consequences. In the outskirts of town, a herdsman, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), lives peacefully with his wife and daughter just outside the grasp of the regime. Their simplicity in life is underscored by the dichotomy of living in town full of its totalitarian complexity. Yet, what this film accomplishes is loosely following Kidane as the protagonist and instead opts to showcase many minor characters as they try to adjust to this new way of life. These myriad of poignant and profound moments develop this film into a stunningly difficult story that is both beautiful to look upon but frightening to think about.
One crucial dramatic choice made correctly was to essentially humanize the jihadists. There is no sense of absurd barbarism inherent in these characters. There is no sense of the plot taking a hold of these characters, turning them into superficial caricatures for the sake of progression or thematic preaching. No, there is a calmness in the ranks of jihadists that slowly take over the town. It is a calmness that interplays with ideological certainty, that the ideas of Islam of which they endorse are the standard and should be implemented in the towns they control. One scene observes a meeting between the authority of the town and the decisions they must come to according to their faith. Though this determination is present, the director subtly injects a hesitation, or confusion of perception that is produced with such a strict idea of what the Islamic faith means. Though in several scenes between the authority and the local mullah, tension arises between the strict interpretation of faith and the more accepting. Complexity looms over such interactions and one feels that there cannot be any solution approaching form the horizon.
We now understand that the focal plot is not necessarily the focus, but the way people may live, prosper, or fall under a new regime. Kidane encounters tragedy half way through the film, but it is among the tapestry of change the rest of the community faces. The only difference is that this main character is physically and geographically detached form the city. Drama is spawned by such distance because it hints at a possibility that the jihadist will not contaminate the simple grandeur of Kidane life with his family. Though the film’s theme, right from the opening shot, suggests terrorizing ideology spreads inevitably.
There are many small moments in the film that make you smile, including one where young men get away with playing pantomime football (soccer); a triumphant display of athletic freedom. More likely than not, though, such scenes are tampered with by the jihadist control, including one where the regime vehemently looks for the source of local pop music that is then intercut with a small group of people enjoying a relaxing jam session. Another, more disturbing scene, involves a man who what seems like instantaneously desires the hand of a local woman. The mother of the woman complains that without her father a proper marriage cannot be arranged. Some jihadist members sit as moderators. After no success for the man, he suggests that the next time something happens, “He will do something bad.” The jihadists allow for such an action because, as the film has shown us, the role of women gradually are diminished into objects. they are forced to cover their skin but in parallel their humanity is stripped from them.
My review as been a broad description of many moments rather than an analytical exploration into the aspects of the film, itself. I have not mentioned the stunning cinematography by Sofian El Fani, whose camera elucidates a beauty amid the devastation of oppression akin to a film like “12 Years a Slave.” I also have not gone over potential weaknesses, which includes the climatic moment that may puzzle some people. It most certainly risks a forceful attempt to fit plot into theme but some might forgive this choice because of the looseness of the story to begin with.
“Timbuktu” is not just an incredible experience but maybe even a necessary experience. We look upon the ideological turmoil that plagues many parts of the world from afar. We distance ourselves from the notion that religion can still be managed into a physically hostile and depriving institution of chaos. We take for granted, as a privileged group of people (at least my race and socioeconomic group), that despite being bombarded by a plethora of perceptions and outlooks, we are not forced to suffocate, to some extent. Yet we forget these problems are real for people. Sissako allows us to see these issues in a humanistic light that promotes contemplation, though we leave the film with a sense of harrowing melancholy.