Timbuktu [2014 Abderrahmane Sissako Film] Review

Genre: Drama/Slice-of-Life/Tragedy
Year Released: 2014
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Origin: Mauritania/France
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Before Your Eyes, Bamako, The Trap, Capernaum, Omar, Leviathan
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Timbuktu is a real city and in case you didn’t know, it’s in Mali. This ancient city has over 54,000 people living there, has one of the oldest universities there, and was a major center of trade centuries ago. It’s actually sister cities with Tempe, Arizona, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and Marrakech, Morocco. Strangely enough, there was a poll in the UK where 34% of the people thought Timbuktu wasn’t a real place back in 2006.

-Despite the movie taking place in that aforementioned city, it wasn’t filmed in Timbuktu much less Mali. It was done in Oualata, Mauritania of all places. The reasons why could involve director Abderrahmane Sissako being from the country, it’s only one country away from Mali, and unfortunately, Mali had a ton of political turmoil as well as the jihadist activity which a portion of the plot involves.

-Timbuktu was actually nominated for an Oscar despite not winning in the Best Foreign Language Film category. This would make Sissako the first Mauritanian to be nominated for an Academy Award. However, it did win awards elsewhere. It won the Cesar Award for Best Film, Lumieres Award for Best Film, Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Film (Felicite also won that award which I also reviewed), and the Lumieres Award for Best Director. Want to know who else won that same award? Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. Yes, the guy responsible for Starship Troopers, RoboCop, and Total Recall won the same award as Sissako.

-Five languages were spoken in the Timbuktu film. They are Hassaniya Arabic, French, Bambara, Tamasheq, and even English at some points!

-Hitchem Yacoubi acted in this film. Some of his other work involves Munich, A Prophet, and Azur & Asmar.

Happy 2021, everyone! I sure hope this year is a vast improvement over the insanity that was 2020. There was just too much going on and it feels like anything can be an up in this down world. For my first review of the new year, I managed to look at another work from the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako. I legitimately didn’t know his home country had a movie scene until I saw Waiting for Happiness several months ago. That movie was okay, but I felt that there could’ve been more meaning to it. There were things I certainly enjoyed and as my tastes in cinema grow and change, it was fair to give Sissako a second chance with his most recent film so far. This one would be a more serious film dealing with real-life sociopolitical ramifications of Mauritania’s next-door neighbor in Mali (side note: Sissako is half-Malian and even lived in that country for a good portion of his childhood).

What will his critically acclaimed work fare with the Iridium Eye treatment? Will this be top-notch work? Will this be garbage? Also, is Edgar from The Aristocats’ remains in that ancient city? I swear I won’t make jokes about that for the rest of the review given the subject matter of the film, so let’s get started.

Timbuktu takes place in the famous Malian city of the same name in the year 2012. A jihadist cell occupies the city and forces everybody into an ironclad sharia law system. People have been oppressed in harsh ways such as not being allowed to play sports, no music unless it’s the Muezzin playing in the local mosques, women forced to wear veils as well as socks, and other draconian ways. There’s a family who lives just outside the city limits involving a cattle herder named Kidane, his wife Satima, and their twelve-year-old daughter Toya. They live peacefully in the rural part of the Sahara, but things take a turn for the worse when one of Kidane’s cows ends up in a fishing net on the lake and the local fisherman Amadou becomes furious and spears the bovine in the neck. This causes escalated tensions with their families and of course, the Jihadists get involved in the matter since they usurped the local government. How will everyone’s lives be affected by these oppressive conditions?

This was a change of pace from the last time I reviewed Sissako’s other movie. Sure, the natural Saharan settings and filming of several characters in the town are there, but I believe this is done to much greater effect compared to Waiting for Happiness. You see how jihadist rule directly and indirectly affect the people in Timbuktu. One thing I will give credit to both films is they do an amazing job at showing and not telling. It shows the absurdity of this jihadist tyranny in the city. The people play with an imaginary soccer ball since sports aren’t allowed, yet some of the soldiers fanboy over Zidane or Messi. A woman is punished by getting eighty lashes just for singing and for having a man at her house who isn’t a relative, yet one of the soldiers coerces a mother into giving away her daughter for marriage. There’s a woman who runs a fish market who is ordered to wear gloves for her job. Not latex or safety gloves as one would expect in the food service industry, but rather black winter gloves despite being in a part of Saharan Africa! One scene that showed such hypocrisy was early on where the soldiers gun down ancient artifacts. It shows that the jihadists don’t care about preserving Malian or African culture, but want to be gun-toting bullies who impose their will on others. While it would be easy to make this a propaganda piece about Islamic extremists, Timbuktu is balanced out with moderate characters and even one of the imams calls out the jihadists for their hypocrisy, cherry-picking scriptures, and strawmanning portions of the Quran to fit their agendas. Keep in mind that Mali is 95% Muslim and Sissako is from a country where that religious percentage is 99%, so this was a healthy, yet stern critique on people using religion for selfish and nefarious purposes without being preachy about it. Besides the themes tying into the real-life occupation of Mali, there were other things that were great. The characters felt like real people and not caricatures of sorts. The portrayal of Kidane’s family was powerful as well as unique. I found it fascinating with him being a “rebel” of sorts just for owning a guitar and singing to his family when no one was around. Since music is banned in the region, that is a huge act of defiance and even his daughter leans into it when she talks to one of the local boys Issan where she talks about how her father lasted this long by not being an armed insurgent since “warriors die young”. That was brilliant dialogue and it shows that some of the most violent people out there are actually foolish cowards. The family’s situation certainly becomes heartbreaking as the situation with the dead cow escalates and the ending will certainly hit someone in the feels. I enjoyed other elements of the production such as the traditional music being used sparingly in the background. Actress/singer Fatoumata Diawara (whom you may know from my Sia, The Dream of the Python review) did a wonderful job singing and the scene where she sings while being flogged was a tragic part of the movie that will linger in one’s mind. The camera work is well-shot and crisp but is never over-produced. It reminded me a bit of Abbas Kiarostami’s work, but with better shot composition and nowhere near as many long cuts. So many of those things worked for me in watching this film.

Timbuktu does get lost from time to time. This film does get depressing especially as it gets closer to the end. If one wants a typical Hollywood feel-good flick, then Timbuktu isn’t for you. I noticed in the DVD I rented that the subtitles got delayed in multiple parts of the movie and there were elements of dialogue that weren’t subtitled including the songs which was a disappointment. I wanted to know what was being sung or even spoken in different parts of the movie. It was also hard to keep track of multiple characters outside of Kidane’s family. Not only that, but you don’t hear people’s names that often. I’m not asking for people to shout each other’s names when it gets dramatic like Tetsuo and Kaneda from Akira, but it would’ve been nice to know who was who. When I got to the credits and saw different names, even I had to wonder who played which character. Some subplots felt dropped to me like the issue with Abu Jaafar’s marriage issue or that one former rapper who joins the jihadist cause. While the latter’s scene of being filmed to make a recruiting video had some spot-on irony of the one jihadist acting like a frustrated film director, that scene ultimately went nowhere as the characters aren’t seen again. Some scenes did feel a bit boring in between. Timbuktu didn’t need to be some fast-paced action-packed blockbuster, but they could have made some parts of the film more intriguing.

This was an improvement over Waiting for Happiness and I can see why this was a critically-acclaimed work. Now, I wouldn’t call Timbuktu one of the best movies of all time, but this was still a quality film to watch. There was so much depth in Sissako’s most recent film so far and the acting was impactful. The anti-religious extremist themes were handled very well in subtle ways and never became some kind of didactic or overt messaging going on like The Invention of Lying for example. However, things do meander and there were some DVD production issues going on. Timbuktu is a solid entry into Mauritanian let alone world cinema and I would recommend this to anyone into more serious films without the Hollywood stigma.

Adjustable Point Scores:
-Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of Abderrahmane Sissako’s movies.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you want some flashy or funny movies.

-Wonderful acting
-Does an excellent job of showing and not telling when it comes to critiquing the religious extremist ideologies
-Solid visual and audio production

-Subtitle delays and omissions in the DVD
-Too many characters to keep track of
-Some dropped subplots

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: Timbuktu managed to get a PG-13 which is quite sound. There are only two cases of swearing, but that’s not the biggest issue. Jihadism plays a major role in how the town is run and it parallels the real-life insurgency of Islamic Extremists in Mali. There are deaths of animals and humans which do get bloody such as the cow getting speared in the neck (you even see a close up of the cow’s face with its nose bleeding), people getting shot, and there’s a disturbing punishment of an adulterous couple buried in the sand except their heads before getting pelted with large rocks. There are scenes with uncomfortable implications with Abu Jaafar forcing a mother to give up her daughter for marriage even though the father wasn’t around as per customs in the culture. Some drinking and smoking is done, but it’s brief and it shows to highlight the hypocrisy of the jihadists. In the scene with the artifacts getting shot, one figure has an abstract female shape with naked breasts in the depiction of the art there.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Timbuktu is property of Cohen Media Group. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Cohen Media Group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s