Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

Part of the WatchingHumanRights coverage of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (NYC) 2015

Timbuktu takes place in some unnamed locale in northern Africa.  The setting is a small village that has been taken over by Islamists who institute Sharia law on the inhabitants.  The women who work in the fish market are ordered to wear gloves and to cover their faces; music of any kind is not allowed; and although the Islamic guards refer to professional soccer, none of the residents are allowed to play.  In the most beautiful and memorable scene in the film, a group of young men play soccer without any ball as a way of refusing to bend to the will of the occupiers.

The plot revolves around Kidane, a cattle herder who lives with his wife, Satina, and young daughter, Tonya.  One day one of his cattle is killed by a fisherman and Kidane takes the ultimate revenge.  He is locked up and justice is about to be both swift and certain until Satina intercedes and both are killed, leaving Tonya to a cruel fate.  The main takeaway of the film is that the Islamists are hypocrites and act contrary to the dictates of the Islam faith.

The problem is that this is not a particularly novel or fresh idea and it might even be akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  Another problem is that it is hard to show boredom and oppression without the film itself becoming boring and oppressive.  There seem to be no more than ten people who live in the village, but not one is a fully developed character, and that includes Kidane who is the protagonist.  For their part, the Islamic invaders are borderline caricatures.  Do they truly believe (or at least profess to believe) the nonsense they espouse – or, instead, do they approach this just like any other job?  The importance of the film comes from the fact that it was made in the first place.  But as a film itself, Timbuktu is slowly paced and relies too heavily on speechifying to get its political message across.

Mark Gibney

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