Editor’s note: Today is your last chance to see Timbuktu at the Art Theater … and your first chance to read a review by BAMirror’s newest writer, Patrick Hao of Binghamton University.
Reviewed by Patrick Hao
In the opening scene of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Academy Award-nominated film, Timbuktu, the fundamentalist Islamic group Anser Dine is chasing a doe in their truck with heavy firearms, shooting occasionally. One of the members says, “Don’t shoot to kill. We want to tire it out first.” That quote is indicative of what Sissako is trying to achieve with his film about the emerging occupation by a fundamentalist group on a small village outside of Timbuktu in Mali, Africa.
For the village, the first appearance of Anser Dine is merely a small inconvenience. Villagers openly deny the edicts placed upon them. But, like an insidious disease that slowly takes over, the village is thrown into upheaval through oppression and fundamentalism. Every morning, a man with a megaphone shouts provisions of Sharia Law, first in Arabic, then in French, then in English and then in any other regional dialects.
Soon, without a noticeable change, the town becomes fully subjugated by its new occupiers. Sissako shows this by framing the story with levity in the context of bleakness. The film dances from villager to villager, and there is no shortage of laughter and familial bonding. The multitudes of language being spoken speak to the bond of the community. So, when senseless brutality begins occurring for the sake of Sharia Law, the impact is heavy and hard.
Yet, the Islamic occupiers are given their due humanistic portrayals. When a murder happens, the member of Anser Dine who finds the body struggle a moment to decide what to do about the situation. When the fantastic Fatoumata Diawara sings an a cappella number indoors, the people who are supposed to stop her just listen for a moment outside, appreciating the wonderful joys of music. This not only gives depth to the often demonized members of these fundamentalist groups but points out how flawed and inhumane Sharia Law can be to the point that the executors of the law breaks it by simply being. People want to play music and soccer and smoke cigarettes. On a hot day women want to not be forced to wear gloves or head scarves.
Sissako proves himself to be a humanist. The film works through a balance of tone. This village is about the harmony of cultures disrupted by one that must assert its dominance. When that happens, the brightness and vibrancy that Sissako achieves in the first half, suddenly starts to look bleak. The turning point of the film is shot during a sunset with the camera miles away from the action taking place. The aftermath is long and disconcerting, and, for the first time, for both the audience and the villagers, there is real pressure.
When it comes time to the tragic brutality, Sissako handles it adeptly. The same cathartic emotions evoked by people buried up to their necks and being stoned is done simply with children playing soccer with no ball, only their imagination. All this builds up to a scene directly referencing the seminal neo-classicist film Rome, Open City, a Roberto Rossellini film about Fascists in Italy during World War II. And just as it did 70 years ago, the scene still works here as a testament of the loss of humanity through oppression.
There are many more stories happening beyond the headlines. The resonance of Timbuktu comes from this. It exposes people whose daily life is so rarely seen..
Timbuktu closes its run at The Art Mission and Theater, 61 Prospect Ave., Binghamton, at 7:15 p.m. today (March 26).