Reviews - Timbuktu
Reviewed By Vaughan Ames
Superficially the film is a simple story of life in and around Timbuktu, but it is soon obvious that a lot more is going on. It is set in 2012, just after the Jihadist group Ansar Dine has taken over much of Mali, where the bulk of the population was already Muslim. The few Christians have fled the country, so the Jihadists' job would seem to be half done before they even begin. In reality they wanted to set up Sharia law, which was much stricter than the existing system. 'Timbuktu' covers the first short period when they drive into town in their trucks and start implementing their version of the law, which means devising new rules almost for the sake of it to prove THEY are in control now.
Through a series of episodes with little or no links between them, we are shown the results: a woman selling fish is told she must now wear gloves, which would make cutting fish almost impossible; football is banned (even though the Jihadists themselves are besotted with the ins and outs of the French football team, and whether Messi is better than Zidane), so the boys play a visually beautiful game of 'virtual football' – they run around the field with no ball and just imagine where a real ball would be.
Music is totally banned too, which is hugely important in this country where music is part of the soul. We see armed guards searching the streets at night trying to find the origin of the sounds of singing; when they find it, it is a group of people singing the praises of Allah: 'Should I arrest them?' the guard asks over his mobile phone. Eventually they capture a woman who is singing and she is sentenced to 40 lashes. In what, for me at least, was the most inspiring moment of the film, she starts to sing again in the middle of her punishment.
It was moments like these that prevented the film from being depressing for me; no matter what you do to fellow human beings, it is impossible to quell their spirit. We also saw the existing local Imam trying to breathe some sense into the fundamentalists – indeed, the first time we see him he is stopping them bringing guns into the place of worship! The message of the film was definitely 'moderation in everything', and it did its best to show that Islam itself can be very beautiful.
There was a wonderful feeling of tranquillity in the film, both in the camerawork and the narrative; the population didn't seem to be thrown by anything much, believing it was the will of Allah. The main story of the film was about a cattle herder who accidentally kills a fisherman who has killed one of his cows (called, wonderfully GPS!... to show that the people have lost their way I presumed); the herder took his death sentence so philosophically that he didn't even tell the judge about his dead cow.
So the film was definitely beautiful and though-provoking, though I will admit I found a lot of confusing issues and unexplained events; these were resolved in the pub discussion afterwards fortunately, where it was agreed that these odd events were thrown in deliberately to show the chaos of the new rules. That said, we never did work out who the mysterious green rider on the motorbike was...and you had to be there to appreciate the chicken woman!
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