Jan 28, 2015


One expects the worst emotional torture from a movie about the ISIS menace, and if you've been on a diet of simplistic, good versus evil American movie tropes, Timbuktu may mess with your head, but Abdehrrahmane Sissako's magnificent film is a rare gem. It unfurls delicacy and humanity, and even gentle humor, to express its profound outrage about the barbarism of the perverted Islamic rule of ISIS.
Sissako looks at Mali's misfortune with ruthless compassion. He and female screenwriter Kessen Tall do not make the ISIS soldiers into the embodiment of evil. Some are ignorant, but some are smart and speak several languages. Some use their power to try to further their personal agendas, like getting a bride (one shyly, one by force). Some intercede to try to curb the fanatical religious harassment of their neighbors. Others relish the power they can only wield by joining such a cult. They are all guided by unshakable conviction in their warped, life-denying principles. Sissako aims to provide a glimpse of what it is like to live under such insane rules, both for the enforcers and their victims.
He subverts the jihadists by deliberately countering the sensationalist effect of ISIS' appalling violence with a day to day portrait of life under their rule. Sissako refuses to give them free publicity with their thirst for blood, which just gives them more power and sows more fear.
Instead, we witness truly heroic day to day defiance in the courageous stand of a woman fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves, as per ISIS's absurd dictates; through a group of young people who continue to play beautiful Malian music in their home when music is forbidden, or youths who play imaginary soccer, because soccer is forbidden too.
Sissako has a keen sense of the surreal, and an equally firm grasp on reality, which gives Timbuktu the depth of poetry. His sense of humor is almost shocking, under the circumstances, but his ribbing of their ridiculous rules is moving and revelatory. In this world, a Tuareg family of shepherds lives in tents, but owns a cellphone. The jihadis are gadget crazy, and, in a very funny scene, try to make propaganda videos to convince the people of Mali to renounce their normal lives. This world seems as distant as another planet, yet people are up to date with the latest soccer scores. However, they are left to deal with the horrifying invaders on their own. No one protects them. They fight, not with violence, but with stubborn defiance.
Sissako resorts to violence a handful of times. He understands that less is far more shocking than more. But the violation, the humiliation, the privation of dignity and liberty of the inhabitants of Timbuktu are faced with every day is the greatest violence of all. This movie manages to destroy you and uplift you at the same time. It finds some solace in humanity, but ends with a devastating image, a truly powerful reminder that inaction and submission guarantee a future of endless, irrational terror.
Timbuktu is Mauritania's entry for the Academy Awards, and it it is a formidable contender. A remarkable film.

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