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New Release Review - TIMBUKTU

The lives of Timbuktu's citizens are thrown into disarray when Jihadists seize power.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako

Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki



"Timbuktu won't change anyone's mind on this issue - Jihad isn't something you sit on the fence over - but it adds a host of human faces to the statistics on the six o'clock news."



There's a striking scene in Abderrahmane Sissako's dramatised look at the Jihadist occupation of the city of Timbuktu in which a group of teenage boys enjoy an energetic game of football. But it's no ordinary game - no ball is present. It's reminiscent of the closing sequence of Antonioni's Blow-Up, in which a group of London college students gathered to watch a tennis match, again without the aid of a ball. Where the players of Antonioni's game purposely rejected the ball as a statement of disenfranchisement, Sissako's players carry on their masquerade out of necessity; playing football has been outlawed by the Jihadists who rule over the titular Malian city.
This is but one of many tableaux Sissako paints to illustrate the struggle to survive under Jihadist rule. As with sports, music and singing are also banned, and a young woman is sentenced to 80 lashes for singing, in the company of men to boot! An adulterous couple are buried up to their necks in the sand and stoned to death. A fishmonger argues against being forced to wear gloves while carrying out her work. Meanwhile, the main subplot deals with a farmer who finds himself sentenced to death after accidentally shooting dead a fisherman during an argument.
As well as concentrating on the victims of occupation, Sissako gives us a glimpse into the often confused world of their oppressors. Many of the Jihadists have arrived from outside the country, from Europe and North Africa, making communication with the citizens of their Sharia state, and among themselves, difficult. There's much hypocrisy in their enforcement of Sharia; while cigarettes are outlawed, one prominent Jihadist regularly sneaks behind a bush for a few quick tokes. Despite the anti-sports view, a bunch of young Jihadists argue over whether Messi or Zidane is the best soccer player. More time is spent scrolling through smartphones than thumbing through the pages of the Qu'ran.
With much of their laws made up on the fly, the Jihadists regularly find themselves in a state of confusion, consulting with the local Imam for guidance. Can football be considered a sport if no ball is employed? If someone sings to Allah, should they receive punishment? Much of this results in uncomfortable black comedy. The situation is so ridiculous you have to laugh, but so sad you feel ashamed for doing so.
Sissako presents all this in a detached fashion. Through long takes and wide shots he contrasts the expansive beauty of the landscape with the ugly behaviour of the Jihadists. At one point an execution is disrupted by the passing of a herd of camels, traipsing through the desert as they have for centuries, unperturbed by yet another pathetic drama of human folly. Timbuktu won't change anyone's mind on this issue - Jihad isn't something you sit on the fence over - but it adds a host of human faces to the statistics on the six o'clock news.



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