Film Review: “Timbuktu” — From Moderation to Totalitarianism

Director Abderrahmane Sissako wants the viewer to have the golden-age city in mind when, today, 2015, we see how terrible life has become there.

Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA

A scene from "Timbuktu."

A scene from “Timbuktu.”

By Gerald Peary

Timbuktu, the thoughtful, Oscar-nominated foreign-language feature from Mauritania’s superb filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, is set in a confined, austere, sub-Saharan desert town with little resemblance to the metropolis of myth. In the 15th and 16th century, Timbuktu was a bubbling commercial center for gold, ivory, and salt, while also, quoth the Internet, “a fertile ground for scholarship of religions, art, math and sciences for its 100,000 inhabitants …”

Sissako wants the viewer to have the golden-age city in mind when, today, 2015, we see how terrible life has become there. Timbuktu starts up with an invasion of jihadists, arriving by truck and motorbike, with repeating rifles and cell phones. Even before entering Timbuktu, the Islamists’ agenda is trumpeted, as they try to shoot down a fleeing eland just for the sport of it, as they line up masks, statues, and other works of indigenous art and spray them with bullets. These historic artifacts lie tumbled in the sand like Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Inside of Timbuktu, the jihadists announce via megaphone the rigid conditions of their rule. No music. No sports. No smoking. And no naked-ankled women. All females must wear socks, and also gloves to hide the flesh of their wrists and hands. Praise Allah!

Al-Qaeda now seems, weirdly, a more moderate brand of jihadist than the proudly murderous ISIS and Boko Haram, and that’s how Sissako opts to characterize the barbarians at the gates of Timbuktu. They’re Islamists with very human faces who, up close, seem vaguely decent people who share the desires of secularists, however impure. One of their leaders can’t help but keep visiting a local woman who attracts him, though he stays clear because she is married. This same fellow also can’t resist reaching for a clandestine cigarette. Praying to Allah doesn’t stop his nicotine need. And what are several jihadists so feverishly discussing in the dark? No, it’s not the wisdom of Mohammed. It’s the merits of Europe’s premiere teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

So hypocrisy reigns. No Timbuktu native would dare pull out a Marlboro; he’d be arrested. The Islamists thought police question people on the street about who dares own a soccer ball. Meanwhile, boys at the outskirts of town use an imaginary ball for a football match, including a tense penalty kick. The game stops in its tracks when a motorbike rides by carrying vigilant riflemen with shrouded faces. Even for school-age youngsters, soccer is grounds for detention and severe punishment.

At first, it seems possible to say “No” to the jihadists, who, unlike ISIS, do not execute citizenry on the spot. A peddler woman argues that she can’t sell smelly fish wearing gloves. A loony lady wearing jewelry and colorful outfits stands tall in front of a jihadist truck. A town elder admonishes the invaders for entering a mosque with boots and rifles. None of the above are arrested. And the thought police seem to stand by one night when they hear forbidden music, because the tune is a religious one.

But Sissako shows that this moderation is deception; soon, totalitarianism rules with a lethal fist. A jihadist soldier bullies a mother to make her daughter marry him. When the soldier carries her off, the Islamist court backs him up. Islamists make the law for the town, not the people of Timbuktu. Because they played secular music and were alone together in a room, an unmarried man and woman are given the cruel sentence of eighty lashes. Most frightening, a woman is caught speaking with her boyfriend on a cell phone. Apparently, she’s married, and so we have a case of adultery, called “the most impure sin.” Sissako sets up an unsentimental, matter-of-fact scene (therefore more appalling) in which the perhaps guilty couple are buried in sand to their necks. Bricks and stones are tossed at their heads until they are dead. And it looks like a surrealist painting!

I had the pleasure of meeting Sissako in 1998, when I was the guest curator of the Harvard Archive, and he was in residence as recipient of the annual Geneviéve McMillan Award granted to a French-African filmmaker. He was a sophisticated, cultured cineaste with a strong knowledge of cinema history, both from studying in Moscow and living long in Paris. In his earlier, more formal films, Sissako seemed influenced by Jean-Luc Godard. In Timbuktu, I see an homage to François Truffaut.

If Timbuktu has a hero, it’s a herder named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives outside the town in the desert, sharing an open tent with his wife, Satima, and his daughter, Toya. Their life is simple but idyllic, and Sissako shoots into the tent as if filming Mary and Joseph’s manger. Unlike the jihadist world, it’s happily matriarchal. Kidane is the head of family, but he loves and respects his wife, and absolutely adores Toya, his daughter. “She is my heart,” he says.

Naturally, Kidane runs afoul of the invaders, and he becomes subjected to their harsh laws. And that leads to a conclusion for Timbuktu of gunfire, killings, anarchy, and locals running, running to get away. But can they? A final shot of young Toya is sad, fatalist. It recalls Truffaut’s freeze-frame curtailing schoolboy Antoine Doinel’s futile race to the sea in The 400 Blows.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess


  1. samcmac on February 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Great piece. Liked this one a lot but even still I’m starting to feel like I underrated it a touch. One reason for that is that the narrative structure, the whole regionalized mosaic thing, which first seemed played out, and a bit of a hacky way of getting across human universalities (cf. “Mammoth,” “Syriana,” all of Iñarritu’s idiotic films), now strikes me as Siassako’s pointed repurposing of a technique too often used by first world filmmakers to represent western perspectives on foreign cultures. Admittedly Sissako was using this technique before its boon in the mid-Aughts, but here especially his caustic demystification of Al Quaeda and humanistic look at those innocently caught under its hypocritical command registers as a direct rebuke to the broad demonizing of this culture.

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