Serenely beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic, “Timbuktu” gives us a somber but ultimately compassionate look into the world most of us are not very familiar with. As our eyes are drawn to its vast, beautiful desert landscapes to behold, we come to look closer to the people living in this unfamiliar world whose life is now being trampled by the oppression and brutality committed in the name of religion. While never breaking away from its calm, reflective attitude, it quietly observes the resulting human sufferings with silent sadness and indignation, and that makes it all the more haunting and harrowing in the end.
In the opening scene, a desert animal is running away from a bunch of militants chasing after it by their truck. We notice their turbans covering their faces, the guns they are ready to use, and that recognizable Islamic flag we often see from TV news nowadays. It is not long after the Northern Mali conflict began in early 2012, and Timbuktu, one of the main cities in the region, has been occupied by an Islamic militant group for a while. We see several ancient masks and statues destroyed by them for being ‘idolatrous’ objects, and this bleak, wordless scene in the dessert succinctly conveys the damage being done to Mali and its culture and people.
The Islamists have strictly imposed the Sharia law on Timbuktu and its surrounding area. While music is absolutely forbidden along with soccer and many other things, men are demanded to roll up their pants’ legs enough to show their feet and shins, and women are ordered to wear hijab, socks, and gloves all the time whenever they are outside their houses. During one scene, a woman selling fishes protests that she cannot possibly handle her fishes while wearing gloves, but there is not much she or others can do in front of those fundamentalists with guns.
Many people already left Timbuktu, but others remain as trying to endure this oppressive occupation which may end someday as they hope. Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a cattle herder living outside Timbuktu, is one of such people, and he and his family are relatively free from the Islamists’ control compared to others living in the city. When he is with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their young daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), it is clear that they are happy to be with each other despite their poor environment, and it looks like nothing can disrupt their modest happiness as they spend afternoon together in their tent.
But the Islamists’ occupation is still a fact of their daily life. On one day, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), one of the high-ranking guys in the Islamist group, visits while Kidane is absent. When he comes across Satima, he points out that her appearance is not proper at all. Satima, a silent but resilient woman, does not step back while being tactful and courteous, and Abdelkerim, who turns out to be infatuated with her, overlooks her transgression which could get her punished according to their law.
Meanwhile, Kidane gets himself into a very serious trouble. When Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), an orphan boy working under Kidane, is taking care of Kidane’s herd near a local river, one of the cows happens to get entangled with a net belonging to a local fisherman named Amadou (Omar Haidara), who instantly kills the cow with a spear (It is implied that there has been some tension between him and Kidane, though it is never specified in the film). After hearing this news from devastated Issan, Kidane decides to take care of this matter for himself, but, unfortunately, that leads to an irreversible outcome he never imagined. He is soon arrested then jailed by the Islamists, and they will put him on a trial within a few days.
The movie surely has lots of sympathy toward Kidane and his family, but, interestingly, it does not present its Islamist characters as one-dimensional villains. They are indeed violent bullies who use religion as their convenient excuse for cruelty and violence, but we sometimes get the glimpses of the humanity locked behind their extremism. In a humorous scene which took me back to a similarly amusing moment in Palestinian film “Paradise Now” (2005), one of young Islamist members tries to declare himself as a jihadist in front of the video camera, but, despite his effort and his comrades’ help, he keeps bumbling throughout the shooting process. The more he tries to look resolute and determined, the more it is apparent that he has never had any serious thought on why he decided to join his group.
In case of Abdelkerim, he has his own foible to hide behind his hypocrisy, and he cannot even fool his young driver, from whom he is currently learning how to drive. Fundamentalists are usually lenient on themselves while strict on others, and he and his fellow Islamists are no exception. Their restrictions on local residents are nothing but means for rule and oppression, and they can always be exception because, well, they have the power. When a local girl happens to be forced into marrying some thuggish Islamist, a local imam meets the Islamist leaders and tries to find a sensible solution for this problem, but, not so surprisingly, his reasonable argument falls on deaf ears while the Islamist leaders adamantly insist that it was a proper and legitimate marriage.
While the streets and alleys of Timbuktu are constantly under the Islamists’ watchful eyes and ears, they still cannot suppress life entirely. When local boys play with their imaginary soccer ball on the field, you will be amazed by how well they play together and then saddened by this absurd circumstance they are pushed into. There is a woman who looks a bit crazy but feels like the force of nature as she flaunts her brash, colorful personality in front of the Islamists, and we get a strangely poetic scene when one of the Islamists happens to get a chance to express his hidden artistic spirit at her residence.
But then the movie also looks at heartless cruelties inflicted on common people, which are presented with considerable restraint and power. When a young woman is sentenced to receive lashings in public just because she enjoyed music with lads, her small defiance against savage punishment generates one of the most powerful moments in the film. During one chilling scene which is actually inspired by a real-life incident, an unmarried couple is executed for their transgression as their neighbors helplessly stand by, and the camera lingers on the gut-wrenching aftermath with the immense sense of unjust tragedy.
It goes without saying that there is the grim inevitability in the plight of Kidane, who has already accepted it as a plain good man with faith and dignity. Feeling guiltier about what he inadvertently caused, he calmly speaks about his position and his family in front of the people who will determine his fate. He does deserve some compassion considering his unfortunate circumstance, but they will not consider that much as delivering their final judgment on him.
The director/co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako, an acclaimed Mauritanian director who received the Prize of Ecumenical Jury for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (the movie was also Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film early in this year), simply lets us involved in his simple human story. He depicts his characters with care and understanding, and the actors are natural and believable in their earnest performances as the human beings occupying or living in their world. Although their life mostly look shabby and backward, they are also familiar with modern technology as reflected by their use of cellular phones, and I was especially amused by the name of one of Kidane’s cows.
Shot in Oualata and Nema in Mauritania, the movie is filled with vivid local atmosphere under Sissako’s masterful direction. The cinematography by Sofian El Fani is frequently breathtaking for its gorgeous presentation of wide landscapes. During one certain scene shown from the distance through a static wide shot, the camera looks at two tiny figures slowly being apart from each other in the vast background, and the lyrical beauty of this moment further accentuates the sense of tragedy slowly and devastatingly growing inside it.
“Timbuktu” is a sad, grace tale of nature, people, and religion, and it will stay with you for a long time for its mesmerizing beauty and profound humanism. Blinded or driven by their virulent religious self-righteousness, some of the people in the movie bring only unhappiness and misery to others, and they come to cause another sad moment of despair and sorrow as the movie eventually arrives at its heartbreaking finale. I am now reminded of one memorable line from “Angel Heart” (1987): “They say there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate each other, but not enough to make them love.”