Timbuktu review – A powerful film that achieves its greatness through calm, heartfelt performances

Set around 2012 and inspired by the real-life occupation of Timbuktu, Mali by Ansar Dine (a militant Islamist group), Timbuktu feels in some ways more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary than a feature film: you feel as though you are observing ordinary people as they go about their day-to-day lives as there is a naturalness — a realness — to the cast.

The lives we observe mostly fall within two categories: the peaceful, ordinary townsfolk and the dangerous, hypocritical jihadists. As in real life, the members of Ansar Dine portrayed seek to impose sharia law in Timbuktu. Women are told they must wear gloves and socks, and smoking and music are forbidden.

We see the enforcement of sharia law through, among other things, the stoning of a man and woman found guilty of adultery. Director Abderrahmane Sissako doesn’t deliver shock after shock, however — he builds the narrative through observations, following multiple characters from both sides.

It is clear from the start of the film that the jihadists have no respect for the culture of the townsfolk. They speak via translators and an imam (a Muslim worship leader), when trying to reason with an Ansar Dine member who was showing disrespect in a house of god, receiving the arrogant response: “But we can. We’re doing jihad.”

None of the townsfolk appear happy to be occupied but they don’t react in a forceful way either, instead showing dignified resistance and, on some occasions, notably a female fishmonger told to wear gloves, challenging the jihadists’ authority.

When the imam asks for leniency, he’s continuously denied and the sense of uneasiness and dread you feel as a viewer starts to increase. A child is forced to marry against her mother’s wishes and a man is told he will receive 20 lashes after playing football, but the ‘justice’ served that caused me to have a visceral reaction was when a woman sentenced to 40 lashes for singing, starts singing as she receives her punishment.

My uneasiness and dread remained but my anger grew, as the pious jihadists acted according to sharia law only when it suited them; one of their leaders, Abel Jafri’s Abdelkerim, smokes and covets another man’s wife.

A critical plot point occurs at the end of the first third that sparks a chain of events that changes the lives of a herdsman (Ibrahim Ahmed’s Kidane) and his family who had been living peacefully away from the city in the desert.

Throughout Timbuktu Ahmed delivers a dignified, stoic performance, ably supported by Toulou Kiki as his wife, Satima. He delivers a heart-breaking line early on in the film — “What’s the use of fleeing all the time?” — and the film’s finale delivers another heart break.

Timbuktu is a powerful film from Mauritania that achieves its greatness by delivering moments of quiet resistance through calm, heartfelt performances rather than melodrama, hysteria and intense action.


Timbuktu (2014)

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki

“A cattle herder and his family who reside in the dunes of Timbuktu find their quiet lives — which are typically free of the Jihadists determined to control their faith — abruptly disturbed.” – IMDb.

  • Awarded the François Chalais Award and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
  • Won Best Film at the 11th Africa Movie Academy Awards
  • Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 87th Academy Award
  • Nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language at the 69th British Academy Film Awards

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