Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako) 2014

With Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed.


Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) is a cattle herder, who with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki)and their ethereally beautiful duaghter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) live in the desert in Mali, tending to their livestock and each other.  In town, Jihadists have arrived bearing arms and telling people the new rules.  These include no music, cigarettes, or soccer.  Women must cover their toes and fingers at all times.  When a woman who is selling fish complains that she cannot do her job if she wears gloves, the interlopers are unresponsive, as if they do not hear.  When the imam in the mosque objects to the men walking in with their boots on and their guns, we wonder if there will be violence right there in the house of prayer.

It is clear a completely peaceful culture has been upended by thugs with guns.  However, this is not the Mafia.  Shoot outs are rare.  Instead, arguments with the usual losers (those without guns) take place.  The imam, objecting to the manner in which a woman was taken to wife by a complete stranger against her will, is answered by the gun toting authority who says, “The man who married her is without flaw.  When we examined him, we found him deserving of the wife.”

It is not as if the Jihadists are simple villains.  One of them is trying hard, in a comic way, to learn how to drive a truck, suffering the indignity of a recalcitrant stick shift transmission you may find familiar if you have tried to learn yourself.  Another is recognized by a native as someone he knew once, and the guilt and regret are palpable.  The truck driver sneaks cigarettes and his colleague tells him he knows he is smoking.  Everyone who is a Jihadist is not comfortable in his role, quite literally in the case of a young man who cannot remember his lines as the cameraman tries to capture on film the compelling reasons that Jihad is necessary.

The mission to enforce a religious orthodoxy will destroy the peaceful community and murder innocent people. The harsh system of justice  includes stoning adulterers and executing murderers.  The sadness of the movie’s narrative is leavened by scenes of humor.  Especially welcome is the town madwoman, Zabou (Kettly Noel), who fled Haiti after the earthquake (the crack went into her brain as well) with her pet rooster.  She is allowed to live as she likes, her hair and face uncovered. Apparently madness is off limits in Shariah.

When soccer is banned men play the game without the ball. Forays back and forth across the field of play are exciting, not only because there is suspense about who will win, but because we as well as the team must imagine the ball when it is not there.   This soccer game demonstrates how resilient the people are.   Still, the beginning of the movie shows how harsh the Sharia law is. Men armed with machine guns shoot at a fleeing gazelle. You wonder when the kill will happen and then the words, ”Don’t kill it, just tire it out” are heard. So that is the game of the orthodox Islamists. Tire out the people. Don’t kill them. Don’t be violent, just be stubborn. Don’t make the madwoman cover her face and feet like the rest of the women in town. Let people know we won’t stoop that low.

The movie is gracefully composed, especially  the scenes of Kidane his wife and child in their tent having tea. A peaceful aura infuses this desert scene. Kidane is alone, his neighbors have all moved away. Perhaps living alone has caused him to lose his reason. He makes some bad decisions which cost him his life. The cows Kidane entrusted to Issane, a young boy barely older than ten, are the source of a great deal of trouble.  One cow, the most prized, is called GPS, a reminder that technology is ever present.  When Issan lets the cows wander too close to the fisherman’s nets, tragedy ensues.  It is a lesson in boundaries.  You cannot cross them without consequence.  Besides the routing of the gazelle, the Jihadists shoot and destroy fertility figurines, taking special aim at the breasts made of wood and stone.

Before the Jihadists came, the movies implies,  the creamy desert landscape spread out endlessly, the dunes rising into small points, with quiet that only comes from deeply rural places extending as far as the eye can see.



About Patricia Markert

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