***** THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!*****
Last week an attractive young lady asked me to go to the movies with her. I am not in the habit of saying "no" to beautiful women, so I relented to her charms and agreed to a trip to the cinema. The only dilemma that arose in this situation was that there wasn't anything of interest playing in theaters that I hadn't seen already. So the lovely young lady searched high and low for a film that could pique our interests. She discovered a film titled Timbuktu, which I'd not heard anything about, that was playing at a small theatre I had never been to. So we decided, with low expectations well in hand, to give it a shot. So join us, won't you, as we look back on our trek deep into the heart of Mali, in the bosom of Saharan Africa (via Laemmle Theaters), in our eternal quest for cinematic bliss.
Timbuktu is a French-Mauritanian film directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 87th Academy Awards. It did not win the Oscar, losing out to the Polish film Ida. Timbuktu tells the story of a herder, his family and the people of Timbuktu as they live under the occupation of Islamic extremists.
Timbuktu is a gorgeous looking film that takes full advantage of the visually stunning desert locale. There are some shots in the film which are so beautiful they are simply mesmerizing. For example, there is a pivotal scene in the film set by a river that is so impeccably shot and masterfully orchestrated that it both startles you yet leaves you awe struck. There is another shot which incorporates the luminous desert moon that is so striking and exquisite it pained me when the scene ended. The cinematography of the film gives the rather stark desert setting a visual lushness and textural vibrancy that highlights and enhances the dramatic contrasts at the heart of the story.
Beyond being beautiful to look at, Timbuktu is a really fascinating film as well. It is the type of film that would never get made in America. One of the reasons it would never be made in America is because its pace is very deliberate. The story takes on the rhythm of the desert that surrounds it. There is no rush in the desert, life takes its sweet or excruciating time. And so does the film.
The film also very wisely and effectively uses the multiple languages spoken in the region, French, Arabic and Tamashek to great effect. Subtitles are used as a dramatic tool to create tension and a sense of alienation and secrecy that propels the story. The use of subtitles, and their lack of use, as a way to build a connection with a character is a subtle yet very powerful way to create empathy, and it is extremely well done in Timbuktu.
Another reason you would never see this film made in America is that it is devoid of the stereotypes and caricatures that so often define Muslims in our main stream movies. Timbuktu is a glimpse into the real life of people who happen to be Muslim. The film excels at showing us that as foreign and exotic as the people, the locale and the culture of Timbuktu may be to us, they still are just humans, dealing with what life has dealt them. It doesn't glamorize or demonize Muslims because of their faith, but shows us the full spectrum of personal human frailty and behavior in the context of a larger political and religious struggle. Timbuktu is not about being on the front lines of a war, but rather a glimpse into the day to day existence of people trying to survive in an often times cruel and inhospitable place while forces beyond their control rage all around them. These are real people dealing with real problems.
Timbuktu also does an excellent job at showing jihadis as human beings. The jihadis in the film are not cardboard cutout, caricatured characters. They are three dimensional humans and not some sort of super villain. It can be very difficult, not to mention unpopular, to humanize a group of people who so easily and viciously dehumanize others. This can be seen as an apology as opposed to dramatic honesty. The natural temptation when confronted with those who dehumanize, is to allow ourselves to be swept into the cesspool of dehumanization right along with them, propelled by our disgust for their repugnant behavior. In falling into this trap, we create a never ending spiral of dehumanization and blindness. Humanizing a group of people, no matter how horrific they may be, does not mean endorsing or condoning their actions, it just means recognizing that they are, at the most basic of levels, human…just like us. The discomfort of acknowledging the humanity in our enemy, with all of their barbarism, comes about when we realize that the atrocities they commit and the savagery that lives in their heart, dwells deep within all of us as well.
In Timbuktu we see the real horrors of Islamic extremism upon people struggling to just live their lives. The jihadis imposing this Islamic extremism, with all of its dehumanizing moralism and legalism, are a flawed, scared, insecure and all too human bunch. Their merciless brutality and blind conviction are only overshadowed by the fruitlessness of their endevour and the inevitability of their failure. Misery and menace are the only things the jihadis have to offer as a governing philosophy and it is why they are doomed to eventually fail. Timbuktu shows us that humans are frail and the fates are fickle, but the human spirit and the quest for beauty, joy, love and truth can never be fully extinguished (the musicians, the dancer and the Haitian in the film are prime examples). Trying to stamp out spiritual error and physical "sin" in humans is like trying to capture your own shadow in a box. You can only imprison your shadow for as long as the night lasts, but when day breaks, and morning comes, the shadow will escape to mock you once again. Chasing your shadow, as we all know, and as the jihadis will eventually learn, is a fools errand.
The lesson of Timbuktu is that this is a very dark time in the world, and many people are suffering. It may still get darker yet, but as the lessons of life and history teach us, tyranny, whether it be religious or imperial, personal or political, cannot and will not last forever. Just as it is true that forces of darkness are ruling in our time, it is also most assuredly true, that time is not on their side, and that the human spirit, with all its flaws, can never be extinguished.
Timbuktu is a stylistically beautiful and dramatically captivating film. This film is not for everyone, and it may not be for you, but it was most certainly for me and my young lady "friend". If you are a cinephile or lover of foreign films, Timbuktu is well worth your effort.