A World Away That’s Closer Than You Think

A Commentary Review of the Film, TIMBUKTU
A Film by Abderrahmane Sissako
97 min. • Rated PG-13
Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

This film was Mountain Shadow’s feature film in April, 2015

When I was a young boy growing up in my small southwest Michigan town, I learned the repeating rhyme that was read to me from a children’s Golden Book by Margaret Wise Brown:

“From Kalamazoo to Timbuktu 
it’s a long way down the track.
From Timbuktu to Kalamazoo 
it’s just as far to get back.”

In my mind’s eye, Timbuktu was such an exotic, far away place, I wasn't sure if it even existed. (Then again, I've occasionally encountered people who thought Kalamazoo was a make-believe place, as well.) But Timbuktu was once so far down the track, it seemed a world away from anything resembling my own. 

More than a half-century later, however, what happens in Timbuktu today has come home to confront my world with a reality that is as stark and impending as the evening news broadcast.  But it was the indifference of my world recently to the plight of Timbuktu -- along with an enduring universal message that offers some hope nonetheless -- that moved Abderrahmane Sissako to so masterfully create his work, TIMBUKTU. 

A brief historical context for this film

Located 20 miles north of the Niger River, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African country of Mali, Timbuktu dates back to the 12th century. Timbuktu today is impoverished, suffering from “desertification.” But seven centuries earlier, the city had been a flourishing trading route, and a center for Islamic scholarship; before a succession of invading forces vied for its control to this very day.  

For a brief time in 2012, the Timbuktu region was overtaken by outside extreme Islamic Jihadists, who strove to impose a strict and distorted form of Shariah law.  In January, 2013, French and Malian government troops began retaking Timbuktu from the radical extremists; but not before scores of ancient documents were destroyed, and rebel suicide attacks wrought further havoc for another six months. 

The filmmaker on the set, with the two child actors

In the midst of this widespread chaos, one incident went largely unreported; namely, an unmarried couple who were stoned to death by religious extremists, leaving their children orphans. It is against this backdrop that Abderrahmane Sissako wrote the screenplay, and then directed  (and co-produced) his film, TIMBUKTU.

About the film:

In the opening frames of the film, a gazelle bounds across the barren landscape until -- with a startling burst of gunfire -- the viewer realizes the creature is running for its life. The stage is set. 

In the closing frames of this desert tale, a scene reminiscent of the first will take place. And in between the opening and closing scenes, this beautiful and brutal story unfolds.

In the Sahara dunes outside the city of Timbuktu, a contented Kidane enjoys a simple life with his happy wife, Satima and their playful daughter, Toya. With the help of a shepherd boy, they tend their cows, drinking tea with laughter and their indigenous music. 

Then a simple, tragic and very human encounter takes place that includes conflict and confrontation, anger and revenge, and the consequences that will test the limits of love, hate and the arbitrary laws by which lives are ruled. It is at once a universal tale, as well as a political critique of the particular circumstances under which this story becomes subsumed. 

In this case, it is the strict enforcement of the Jihadist’s warped ideology that is exposed as being as absurd as it is hypocritical and cruel.  The historical succession of invading marauders and their fleeting attempts to impose control will eventually slip through these rebel’s hands like the Saharan sands itself; but not until their aberrant behavior wreaks havoc on the simple lives they've come to disrupt. 

Making these bully’s actions all the more ludicrous – even darkly comical – is the juxtaposition of traditional ways with the technological accouterments of our post-modern world. 

Kidane’s daughter will struggle to get good reception on her cell phone from their nomad’s desert tent, while out on the dunes in a Toyota Landcruiser, the Jihadist’s commander, Abdelkrim wrestles with a stick shift; as he receives driving lessons from his teenage sidekick. In an awkward role-reversal, the adolescent subsequently catches the giddy new driver trying to sneak a cigarette; while everyone else has been banned from smoking.  

In another scene, the consequences of an easily accessible video camera in the hands of an amateur filmmaker with clumsy actors is self-evident; as the extremists attempt record and post their self-proclaimed notoriety over the internet.

More ludicrous still is the woman selling fish who is ordered to cover her hands and wear gloves. Or the soccer game that is forced to be played with an imaginary ball. And finally the extremists who creep and crawl over rooftops at night trying to find the source of some joyful, outlawed music that wafts through the evening air.

Blatantly defying such tenuous authority is the village’s temptress; who struts defiantly through the dusty streets in her colorful, gaudy and tattered garb trailing out behind her. She is like the court jester, as untouchable as she is irresistible; as if she could expose her emperor’s eventual impotence and illusory façade at will.

In a word, TIMBUKTU is about the human capacity for sheer stupidity and heartless brutality, borne of ignorance and intolerance; as well as a kind of sublime love that cannot be extinguished, even when the bearers of such love are snuffed out.

As such, Timbuktu really isn't all that far down the tracks from anywhere else. jb