Timbuktu: A Film Review

Timbuktu: A Film Review August 6, 2015


A few months ago I watched Abderrahmane Sisako’s Timbuktu, as part of a retrospective of Sissako’s work at the Walker Art Museum.

It stunned me at the time—the film examines how daily life changes in a Malian community where an al-Qaeda group has taken over. While the film focuses primarily on a young family’s tribulations when a murder is committed, the film explores how mundane, everyday situations under ordinary circumstances can suddenly become a minefield when the new impositions are not followed—for men, women, and children.

Sissako shared that his reason for making the film was to illustrate how the Malian town is affected living under al-Qaeda rule. There was little mention of Mali’s 2013 takeover by militants in the news. Not only was there little mention of the country’s upheaval, Sissako noted, but there was also little mention of how those living in Mali opposed their new rulers. Mali’s story became more widespread as historical artifacts were destroyed, as opposed to the human toll that many Malians faced. Sissako was inspired to make the film, in part, to a news story he read about an unmarried Malian couple who were stoned to death for having a child. Timbuktu was Sissako’s immediate take attempt at portraying human life under al-Qaeda rule.


The film offers a remarkable portrait of Mali—Sissako employed ample widescreen shots to illustrate the beauty of the Malian landscape (it was filmed in neighboring Mauritania). The film’s soundtrack is also sweeping and majestic, highlighting local music (sung by the wonderful Fatumata Diawara) and instrumental music composed by Amine Bouhafa. The everyday-ness of the film is also heightened by the characters on screen, many of whom were not professional actors, but rather individuals Sissako encountered who he felt would portray the characters in a new light. The film also moves swiftly between languages: from Arabic, to Bambara (the local language of the town), to French—it illustrates the increasingly global scope of the situation and complexity of translating norms.

Music plays a central role in the community, and there are even moments of comedy, as agents are charged with finding those who are playing music or singing. In one memorable scene, they come across a woman who is singing the praises of the prophet. The agents are utterly baffled by this, and instead of making an arrest, seek instead their superiors’ assistance with determining whether that would be permissible.

That women’s lives are profoundly affected by the arrival of the militants was not surprising, as women are overwhelmingly impacted during political upheaval.Timbuktu though, takes care to elucidate how women counter their newly-imposed limitations. A fisherwoman is livid at being forced to wear black gloves in addition to her hijab—how can she sell fish while wearing gloves? She loudly proclaims she’d rather have her hands cut off, and is taken away by the authorities.

There is another moment in the film when a singer is not caught singing the praises of the prophet in her own home, but rather a folksong while in the company of unrelated men, while not wearing her hijab. She is publically flogged for this, in a heart-breaking scene where she sings in defiance.

There are many more scenes that illustrate how everyday situations are suddenly not allowed, and how the new edicts are defied. A scene where the children play soccer without a ball (as playing soccer is forbidden) brilliantly shows how children overcome their limitations, continuing to play soccer in all their joyful, innocent creativity. At the heart of the film is a young family, where the father has committed a crime and is concerned for the impending fate of his only child—a young daughter.

How did I not know of Sissako’s work before the screening I attended? Sitting in the audience, I realized how long it had been since I had seen a non-English film made outside of Hollywood and Bollywood systems. Where do we get our news from and what type of culture do we consume? The answer to this has profound impact on our worldview, understanding of the world, and our inclination to do something about the suffering others face.

In addition to the media consumption questions, Sissako also raises questions about the future that is in store for children under militant rule. While the themes of hope and defiance are woven throughout the characters’ ordeals, there are no clear answers for how to overcome the impositions of those who fundamentally believe their convictions are religiously sound and demand to be obeyed. Even the local imam , was left baffled in his interactions as he attempted to counsel a militant set on forcing a marriage to a young girl against her and her mother’s wishes.

Timbuktu is a memorable film of our times, which asks viewers to consider how profoundly human lives are affected when militants come to rule. It sheds light on how women and girls are intimately affected at the cost of their wellbeing, and the everyday bravery of these communities as they combat their repressive rulers.

Timbuktu is available to rent or purchase on Google play.


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