Timbuktu – Review

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An ‘issue movie’ may find itself unexpectedly caught in its own lessons, unable to reconcile the many facets of an important real-world message with the intangible magic of cinema. But when that meeting of methods does turn out successfully, it’s almost always reason to celebrate. Call it a parable, a diatribe, a lesson; whatever label you give Timbuktu, the latest feature from Abderrahmane Sissako, it won’t be enough to capture the complexity of this fiercely intelligent, yet soulful picture.

We find ourself in Timbuktu, the place that Western civilisation refers to when we mean nowhere at all. But Timbuktu reveals itself to be at the heart of everywhere; a small village is taken over by the Jihadist movement, enforcing religious doctrine on those who were getting on fine without it before. Musicians are hunted down; farmers are imposed by new rules; adolescents are tortured for playing football. It’s all too much for the inhabitants, but there’s seemingly nothing they can do to stop the ever-growing force that now holds them in a zealous grip. There is no metaphor to be found in Timbuktu; this movie shows the world how it is, and yet Sissako assembles his movie with a masterly pace, and fills it with performances that exhibit a strong naturalism; and yet, despite its almost stark formal plainness, there is a certain grace to be found in its subdued frames. Not only is the dust-strewn African landscape presented in all its gorgeous glory, but shots of the suffering residents’ faces, when being punished by their self-elected leaders, show us the psychological landscape in rich simplicity; featured heavily in the posters for the film, one woman appears screaming out in pain. That is only one side of the issue, where in reality, she is half-screaming, and half-singing. It’s a profound moment, both chilling and moving, and emblematic of Timbuktu’s wisdom that the power of intermingled image and sound is enough to push your story forward. Not that the film is narratively lacking, either; there is plenty of excellently crafted scenes where tension is constantly building through the village, showing the influence their Jihadist dictators are enjoying on a geographical scale.

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That doesn’t mean there’s something here for everyone, though, thanks to Sissako’s resolute refusal to overdramatise. Feelings can be seen clearly, bubbling violently under the surface; death scenes are dealt with matter-of-factly, bordering on emotional disconnect. This may prove tedious to some, but Timbuktu is a treasure of socio-political observation, if not comment; above all else, however, its focus on its many interesting characters, and their relationship with a system slowly destroying their old lives, serves as a clear-eyed microcosm of modern times. The events here are actually happening over the world now; Timbuktu is nowhere no more.

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