“Jihadists are people too!” That’s probably the big, blinking takeaway from Timbuktu, director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated drama about the occupation of the titular city by extreme Islamists. But it’s also the most reductive possible interpretation of a film that doesn’t shy away from portraying some of the beauty in thoroughly ugly circumstances. More importantly, Timbuktu tells a volatile story with tremendous grace.
“Here, in Timbuktu, he who dedicates himself to religion uses his head and not his weapons.”
The early part of the film is presented as a series of slice-of-life vignettes. Roughly half of them show jihadists patrolling the streets of Timbuktu — located in the Western African nation of Mali — as they enforce rules that include bans on music, smoking, and soccer. (A later sequence features a group of young men seemingly breaking that last rule, until it’s revealed they’re playing with an imaginary soccer ball. It’s a poetic and effective show of defiance.) We also see one of the jihadists, a seemingly conflicted man named Addelkerhim (Abdel Jafri) occasionally consult with a local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), who insists people like Addelkerhim do more harm than good for Muslims; the imam also can’t fathom as to how people like Addelkerhim can put children in danger under any circumstances.
The other half of the film tells the story of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a gentle cattle herder who lives on the outskirts of the city with his weary, sensible wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their perceptive daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Satima implores Kidane to follow their friends and neighbors out of Timbuktu, but Kidane strongly believes they’ll all come back and he doesn’t want to leave his homeland. When one of Kidane’s cows accidentally damages a local fisherman’s net, it ignites a series of tragic events that puts Kidane and his family on a collision course with Timbuktu’s new militant Islamist laws.
It takes a bit for the “plot” of Timbuktu to reveal itself. However, I hardly noticed because Sissako, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kessen Tall, unpacks the events of this film in a way that is totally captivating while remaining un-showy. The movie opens with what looks like the elegance and beauty of a free-running gazelle…until it’s revealed the animal is running for its life from a group of bored jihadists with automatic weapons. (Timbuktu nicely evokes that opening sequence for its final shot.)
There are also compelling and entertaining digressions, like a fed-up female fishmonger who bristles at having to wear gloves and asks the jihadists to simply cut off her hands already. I found her, and the woman who is ultimately sentenced to 40 lashes for committing the cardinal sin of singing, more interesting than the recurring Mad Woman who flagrantly breaks the new laws of the city while avoiding punishment. It’s a surrealist touch that succeeds in breaking up the numbing misery of the new Islamic rule, but it doesn’t totally mesh with the very human-scale stories being told elsewhere.
“Where is God in all this?”
That humanity extends to the portrayal of some of the jihadists. (Sissako is a Muslim and a native of Mauritania, a neighboring nation of Mali’s.) The film wisely resists giving Addelkerhim or any of his compatriots a redemptive “hero’s journey.” Instead, we’re offered glimpses of normalcy in their lives. One of them sneaks a smoke when he can. And while soccer may be prohibited in Timbuktu, it doesn’t stop a group of jihadists from getting into the sort of faux-heated World Cup debate that could be occurring in any sports bar around the world. That sense normalcy is aided by a largely inexperienced cast of non-professionals. Jafri has more than 50 credits to his name, but the actors who play Kidane and his family have Timbuktu as their sole film credit. Together, they collectively give the proceedings a more genuine vibe. (Though, to be fair, it’s harder for me to point out potentially-flat line readings when actors are speaking a language I don’t understand.)
For all its sensitivity and occasional splendor, Timbuktu dares to show some harsh realities. (Sissako depicts brutal stonings and a good amount of the 40 lashes the “chanteuse” receives.) Still, this is a low-key, totally affecting movie that is elegant in its simplicity in the way it presents a complicated way of life.
Timbuktu is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 32 mbps. The aspect ratio is ideal for the breathtaking widescreen shots Sissako and cinematographer Sofian El Fani like to employ. (There’s an especially gut-wrenching one following Kidane’s fateful encounter with the fisherman.) Some of the wider shots veer more toward being pleasingly grainy — which make sense with the sandy landscape — rather than offering razor sharp detail. The latter is reserved for close-ups, which also reveal a good amount of texture on the garments. Colors are largely rich but muted, while black levels are appropriately inky. This is alternately a deeply grand and intensely personal film, and this Blu-ray release from Cohen Media Group does an exemplary job of conveying both sides of that coin
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is more active than you’d expect from a film that largely revels in the quiet moments of everyday life. The mournful score by Amin Bouhafa is well supported by all the speakers, giving it the necessary amount of weight to help carry the action on screen. Subs can be heard whenever the jihadists fire up their disruptive motorbikes and pickup trucks to wreak havoc around town. The track is also sneakily dynamic, like when a shot rings out from the front speaker and echoes throughout the rears. Dialogue — which is in Arabic, Tamashek, French and English — is quite well-balanced with the other sonic elements. Curiously, the DTS-HD 5.1 track is not the default selection, so make sure you hop on the setup menu and switch over from Dolby Digital.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Interview with director Abderrahmane Sissako: (33:00) Sissako talks about being inspired to make the film by the story of an unmarried couple with children who were stoned to death. Since the director and interviewer are speaking through a translator, this Q&A session doesn’t have an ideal flow, but it’s interesting to hear Sissako discuss the casting process and how he made it a point to portray the plight of women.
Timbuktu, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee during the most recent Oscars, obviously deals with tough ideas and a way of life a lot of people aren’t very familiar with. (And don’t really *want* to be familiar with, at least not when it comes to their entertainment.)
That being said, the film is certainly well worth watching for the skill with which it has been made and for its humane, surprisingly lovely approach to an incendiary subject.