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Not far from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists determined to control their faith. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family are being spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu. But their destiny changes abruptly.Written by
In 2015 Timbuktu became the first film shot in Mauritania by a Mauritanian director to win at the Cesar film awards. It won seven awards out of its eight nominations including Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Music and Best Sound, thus setting the record for being the African film with the most awards ever. See more »
I'm Abdelkarim's driver. I have a message from him: "He can't do anything to help. It's over".
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Timbuktu won the Francois Chalais Award at Cannes in 2014 and was nominated for Best Foreign language film at the 2015 Academy Awards. It's easy to see why. Not only is it a beautiful, serene and well- made film but it also has the fortitude to take on radical Islam in a brash, yet compassionate way. The fact that this film and director Abderrahmane Sissako has been readily accepted by the western world is not only evidence that audiences are willing to see films depicting extremism, but are willing to accept a more nuanced version than the caricatures we've conjured in out own minds.
There are many stories covering the breadth of Timbuktu, though the main and most powerful tale concerns Kidane (Ahmed) and his family. Kidane, his wife Satima (Kiki) and daughter Toya (Walet Mohamed) live on the outskirts of town as a family of cattle herders. For the most part they're far away from the oppressive world of the Ansar Dine occupation that took over the ancient city of Timbuktu from 2012 to 2013. The only encounters they seem to have is between Jihadist (and driver in training) Abdelkerim (Jafri) who covets Satima. One day a local fisherman kills one of Kidane's herd. From there the Jihadists converge on the family, administering their harsh interpretation of Sharia Law.
There are many side stories that decorate the edges of Timbuktu's moral parable. While these stories don't necessarily provide interesting characters they do provide some arresting images. An audacious woman known by the locals as La Chanteuse (Diawara) constantly employs subtle forms of silent protest against the city's occupiers. The simplicity of her protests provide the film with some iconic images. In one scene another woman is given twenty lashes for singing and being in a room with a non-relative man. As she sobs with every stroke of the whip, she begins to sing in a singular act of defiance. Another almost absurd aside includes a group of school children playing soccer without a ball since the sport itself is forbidden.
The Jihadists themselves are portrayed as foolish hypocrites; sneaking smoldering puffs of cigarettes smoke and conversing about their favorite soccer teams when no one is watching. When two of them try to enter a mosque with weapons, the local Imam (Cherif) curbs their excesses with sermons on humility, leniency, respect and kindness. Their reactions are often ones of puzzlement, unable to keep up with the Imam's learned discourse.
Yet it's moments like these that provide the film's biggest trouble spots. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Sissako explained that he's trying "to speak on behalf of people who are frustrated with this image...this constant degrading image of Islam." To that end Timbuktu is less of the humanist work like his previous Waiting for Happiness (2002) and more like a classroom lecture. Many have latched on to the film's zeitgeist and made comparisons to The Great Dictator (1940). One could no doubt take Chaplin's closing monologue and feel the same sense of erudite pretension. Yet by coming out and saying what the film's about, it stunts the film's natural humanity. We reach points of tragedy, not with a sense of loss but with a narrative coda. One that resembles and argumentative rebuke.
The film's discourse also feels unnecessarily chambered when you consider Sissako's larger point. It's easy to charge cruelty and hypocrisy yet the challenge is to examine why the world of Timbuktu is sullied by cruelty and hypocrisy. Issues of displacement, poverty, globalization, colonialism (all of which are familiar themes to Sissako) are completely absent. Nothing is left ambiguous and one could not help but think Timbuktu's international success is predicated on whittling away such themes for the sake of moral clarity. Even Kidane's home-life reeks of the nobility through poverty prosaism that hasn't been in vogue since Maxim Gorky died.
Abderrahane Sissako is certainly one of the most talented Cineastes coming out of Africa today. His visual grammar is on par with international contemporaries and his panache for emotional complexity makes him a torchbearer for Cinema's most renowned humanists such as Satyajit Ray, Masaki Kobayashi and Charles Burnett. Thus, Timbuktu ultimately feels like a compromise. The director's desire to connect with a larger (presumably) western audience seems to supersede the film's fertile narrative which is unfortunate. Yet by the merit of the film's imagery and some very potent religious themes, there is forgiveness, there is leniency.
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