Timbuktu (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehti A.G. Mohamed, Salem Dendou, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Kettly Noel, Hichem Yacoubi, Fatoumata Diawara
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Review published March 26, 2015

Mauritanian-born, Mali-raised filmmaker Abderrahamane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness, Life on Earth) directs and co-scripts this thoughtful, objectively balanced drama, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2014.  It's set in and around the titular town in Mali, featuring some interesting actors -- some quite good, others obviously amateurs, but still enacted in such a way that prefers the distance and contemplation over theatrics and heavy emphasis on themes.  It's detached somewhat from an emotional standpoint, though there are undeniably stirring sections, but it does raise enough themes such that it makes for an excellent talk-piece on the matters it develops once it's all said and done.

The opening scene shows the jihadists shooting automatic weapons from a speeding vehicle in the desert, as they chase down a loping gazelle.  It's a scene that hooks you in to its sense of foreboding that never quite lets go throughout, as we know that those who hold the weapons hold the power, and with that great power, everyone else will be at the will of whatever law (the well-publicized Sharia law) they deem worthy of enacting upon them.  They force the people of the village, without explanation, to roll up their pants, or to wear gloves while selling fish, or to avoid singing or dancing.  Those who disobey are taken away, either severely admonished, or even put to death.  That the scene is punctuated with another showing the Islamic fundamentalists shooting local artwork to pieces is symbolic of their shattering of the traditions and customs of the area through the use of weaponry to assert dominance.

In this environment, Kidane (Ahmed), a rural cattle herder living in a tent outside of the village, is enjoying life with his loving wife Satima (Kiki) and twelve-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed).  When one of his errant cattle is killed by another local, Kidane goes to confront the man, but in the ensuing scuffle, tragedy strikes, finding Kidane rousted up by the jihadists, who deliver a swift justice. Kidane, though remorseful, realizes that he can't avert his fate.

Beautifully shot, even through its more heart-wrenching moments, the film never quite becomes as overbearing as you might suspect, but also does shed a great deal of light on the difficulties, dangers and oppression that can occur once jihadists put a stranglehold on once peaceful communities that never needed protection before, and can scarcely defend themselves.  And yet, the overtaking of the town, its inhabitants, its customs, and its way of life is met with but the mildest of protests.  It's all the more scary how Sharia law takes over communities, and spreads, and those who commit even the any form of "rebellion", such as singing, or playing soccer (a brilliant scene has young men playing a game using an imaginary ball, because theirs was taken away) are put to the lash, or worse, without any explanation as to why such laws exist. 

Obviously, any film that is built on tragedy is a tough sell, particularly one done in a foreign language in an area of the world that is mostly unknown to most moviegoers.   However, it does shed light on how such extremist factions can take a foothold in remote corners of the world, choking out just about every form of expression among the local people except for those who commit to joining the cause.  The fear factor is palpable, as, instead of creating dissent, the tactics only breed more warriors to their ranks.  Sissako never paints the religious fundamentalists who've turned the fabric of communities and families upside down as evil, but that's all the more reason to find them alarming -- that rational and otherwise benign (even comical, at least at first) people could find no problems oppressing the lives of others in just about every detail will rattle you to your core.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo