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May 26, 2015
It’s been over three years since the Islamic group Ansar Dine has taken control of Timbuktu, following a military coup d’état. The subsequent imposition of strict Sharia law was only the first of many terrible consequences for Mali. The veiling of women, stonings, and punitive mutilations became part of everyday life for the people of Timbuktu, who couldn’t oppose the armed group in any way. Ansar Dine’s plan to convert Mali into a theocracy also involved destroying heritage sites supposedly instigating idolatry, blocking humanitarian convoys travelling to the region, and banning most cultural activities.
The sole thought of human injustices such as these would be more than enough for some to back the widely spread Western hatred for Islamic fanaticism. A film about Timbuktu might look like the perfect means to unleash rage and indignation, appealing to the masses’ self-righteousness and reactionary thirst for punishment. Abderrahmane Sissako masters his feelings, and shapes them in one of the most beautifully crafted features of the year, proving to be one of the most talented African directors once again.
Already winner of a César Award for Best Film, and of the Francois Chalais Prize at last year’s Cannes, Timbuktu was also nominated for the Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film in 2014. It had little chances of winning against Russian Leviathan (which had already prevailed at the last London Film Festival official competition), the unmissable Argentinian Wild Tales, or Polish road movie Ida, which eventually won the Oscar. In its simplicity, though, Timbuktu offers a kaleidoscope of striking images and sequences, metaphors of life and death that will make you think. This is what cinema is made for.
The main plot follows the story of Kidane, a cattle herder camping with his family in the dunes outside Timbuktu. In the city, the Islamists are taking over, imposing Sharia law and its absurd precepts to the population. Music is banned, sport is banned, anything seen as not complying with radical Muslim commandments is punished with lashing or death. The local Imam seems to be the last voice of resistance in a town occupied by armed jihadists, all of whom are indifferent to the insanity of their simpleminded political agenda. But the tragic irony of the situation doesn’t escape Sissoko’s eye.
Many sequences are worth highlighting, a few are impossible to forget: a woman being lashed for playing music, and lashed again for playing music in a room with other men; a deer hunted in the desert by a group of jihadists armed with Khalashnikovs on a SUV; a group of kids playing football with an imaginary ball; Kidane fighting a fisherman over cattle, and then crossing the lake to return home while the fisherman dies on the opposite shore.
The narrative in Timbuktu might appear basic at times, but this is the price to pay to keep the film’s structure meaningful and coherent. In this fable there are no heroes or plot twists: only the bitter and unfair reality of everyday life in a land far from the so-called civilised world.
Timbuktu is released in UK cinemas on May 29th