"Timbuktu" Review


           A couple weeks ago on the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, when the “What do we do about ISIS?” question was proposed, one of the guests on the panel, a GOP strategist named Mercedes Schlapp adamantly said, “Bomb ISIS! Bomb the hell out of them!” The militantly liberal crowd responded with a collective gasp, as did some of the members of the panel. In Hollywood that particular answer to the “What do we do about ISIS?” question may seem foreign and extreme. But in many areas of the country it is a common response, it is one that I find to be a rash and stupid solution to a very complex problem. You can’t bomb the bad guys without killing some of the good guys; that much is clear. “Timbuktu” a film written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako seeks to take the viewer inside one of these areas that Mrs. Schlapp so bluntly proposed to “bomb the hell out of”. The film seeks to show many things, but perhaps the most important is that these areas inhabited by ISIL are filled with many types of people, lots of whom may want nothing more than to survive.

            The film takes place in Timbuktu, a town in Mali, located in Northwest Africa. It examines the effects of the town being occupied by militant Islamists donning the flag of ISIL, which actually happened in 2012 though the film does not specify that to be the time period in which it occurs. Several different characters and storylines make up the film, the most prominent of which is the story of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a cattleman living on the outskirts of the city. Kidane feeds his family by his cattle business, but his true passion is for music. Kidane spends his days with his wife and daughter, playing his guitar for them and keeping their spirits up in this time of distress. Kidane is only interested in providing for his family who he loves so dearly, and the ISIL occupation has put extreme pressure on his ability to live peacefully.

            A recurring theme in the film is that of hypocrisy amongst the occupying jihadists. They enforce absurd rules on the townspeople such as: no smoking, no music, no dancing, no soccer, and a series of dress codes including women must wear gloves and veils; men cannot wear pants with legs that touch the ground. These rules are arbitrary and ridiculous and there are several scenes showing the jihadists themselves breaking the rules whether it be sneaking cigarettes or chatting about international soccer.

            Unfortunately for the townspeople, a violation of the rules will not result in just a frown as it does for the enforcers. A woman selling fish without gloves is arrested because of her offense, a woman caught playing music is given 70 lashes, and a man and a woman caught in adultery are buried up to their heads and stoned to death for their violation of “God’s law”. Sissako shoots the scenes of brutality with vividness, showing the first and last rocks smacking against the stand-alone heads; yet he doesn’t go so far as to overdo the violence, showing just enough to make an impression on the viewer while not defining the film by the horror.

            While the film jumps around to several different storylines sporadically, some of which I found convoluted and ultimately inconclusive, the overall tone of “Timbuktu” was one of strong resistance and criticism to the Islamic radicalism that is so prevalent today. For me, the film provided what felt like a first-hand look at everyday life in an area occupied by radical Islamists. There are the bad guys, and then there is everyone else just trying to survive. Mrs. Schlapp should keep the larger group in mind next time she tries to answer the most complex situation of this decade.