Unless you’ve completely ignored mainstream media for the past 13 years, you’ll have noticed that Islamic extremism and the apparent dangers that come with it have been getting a fair share of column inches. Ever since 9/11, the creeping threat of a takeover by militant Islamists has rarely been off the news agenda; and yet, to us here in the West, it’s difficult to really understand what invasion by such a violent minority looks like. Militant groups like ISIS, currently dominating Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram, presently controlling parts of Africa, are just names we hear on the news. Timbuktu tries to make the reality of the situation in these parts of the world more tangible, and does so in a level-headed and rational, if detached way.
At the beginning of the film, the Malian city of Timbuktu, and the neighboring rural commune around which the film is predominantly set, is already under the control of a coterie of hard-line Jihadist soldiers clothed in black. The villagers are peace-loving farmers and fishermen suddenly forced to adopt strict new rules not in line with their more relaxed way of life, despite the local Imam’s protestations that what these masked gunmen bring to the people is not the true Muslim faith. Women are told to cover their bodies, men are informed they can now take any woman they choose against her will, and music, smoking and laughter are all strictly banned.
At first, it all seems rather comical, that such harsh guidelines would arise from the incredibly literal interpretation of a single ancient text. However, the senselessness and hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism is highlighted with a surprisingly light touch: soccer is banned, even though the militants themselves stand around – AK-47s in hand – discussing the merits of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. There’s strictly no smoking, though a leader of the group (Abel Jafri) is still frequently driven out into the desert for a cheeky cigarette. The absurdity of a place where the natives insult or just ignore the rag-tag invading force elicits more laughter. This is a film that understands how, before the storm, it’s effective to be funny. Then the executions start.
Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino plays the nominal lead, Kidane, the head of a farming family including Kidane’s wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Dit Pino gives one of the better performances amongst a mixed bag – actors here vary in experience and method, so there’s an unevenness in the execution, but the scenes that shine feature some deeply human displays of angst and despair, especially as punishments start to be doled out. Timbuktu can be shocking at times, with a sudden jump cut to a man buried up to his neck in sand being stoned to death and the matter-of-fact declaration that a mother has to give her daughter over to a stranger from another village being two particular instances where the film puts us in those moments we’ve all read about.
Timbuktu is a topical film; it’s commendable that the people behind it decided to take on something so controversial with such balance. The film removes the hyperbole often found in news coverage concerning this topic and tries instead to take a more objective look. It could be argued, though, that director Abderrahmane Sissako goes for too much distance between his own feelings and the reality of the situation. It renders the film somewhat passionless, despite its serious, honorable intentions. The sun-scorched desert setting does allow for a few lovely shots of scenery, which the camera chooses to linger on in appreciation of the simple beauty, but there’s an emotional detachment that risks our investment.
Another part of the problem is that, following Kidane’s arrest for the accidental murder of a neighbor, the film doesn’t have a whole lot more to add. Here Timbuktu becomes plot-orientated, with attempts made to introduce tight thriller elements that don’t feel totally organic. Instead, you might cast your mind back in this more conventional final third to the unforgettable sequence in which the youngsters of the village play the newly banned soccer minus a ball – they kick at air, celebrate imagined victory, and deny the new regime their satisfaction. More moments like this might have made Timbuktu great. As it stands, however, the film falls short, but it still contains enough for viewers to mull over afterwards.
It may approach the subject of religious fundamentalism in a somewhat passionless manner, but Timbuktu is still a thought-provoking, highly topical tale that surprisingly seeks to entertain as it educates.