I didn’t know anything about Timbuktu going in, which is fitting, I suppose, for a film named after a place considered by Westerners as unfathomably distant and unknowable. (Do Africans have a ‘Timbuktu’ equivalent? Do Saharan villagers say things like “from here to Milton Keynes”?)
Far more unfathomable than any colonial-era geographical mystique is the baffling ideology of ISIS, the terrorist group who form the loose subject of Abderrahmane Sissako’s gorgeous film. Granted, a movie about Islamic fundamentalists hardly seems like a barrel of laughs, and I’ll admit, there is not quite a barrel’s worth of chuckles here. But what’s surprising about Timbuktu is how warm and perversely optimistic it is, even in the face of incredible persecution.
Maybe optimistic is the wrong word. It’s dark. It’s rife with injustice and terror. It does not end well. People are punished, and murdered, for the flimsiest of reasons. But Timbuktu’s great strength is portraying the humanity that comes up against this ugly force.
It presents a side of the ISIS story rarely told in western media: the Average Joe. Most of the people in Timbuktu are just nice, ordinary people, trying to get by, who react with a mixture of exasperation, weariness, drollery and anger when this parade of idiots roll into town.
Put aside their extreme religious or murderous elements and you arrive at one incontrovertible truth: ISIS are just massive, massive arseholes. They ban cigarettes, music, and footballs. They force women to wear veils and gloves. They’re hypocrites (one member smokes secretly behind sand dunes) and cowards. Their utter dickishness is counterpointed by the brilliant stoicism of the people they oppress.
Witness the religious elder who calmly, quietly tells one of the terrorists that there is nothing in the Koran which approves of child murder. Or the woman who offers her hands up for chopping in frustration after refusing to wear gloves. Or the boys who play football without a ball, miming an entire game with breathless enthusiasm.
These ephemeral acts of civil disobedience offer no small amount of hope. That’s where the optimism lies. If you had to offer a criticism, you could say it is a little unfocused, and the motivations of a central character, tried for murder under Sharia law, seem somewhat spurious. But it’s worth seeking out. Sumptuously shot – it probably doesn’t take much to make a country like Mauritania look beautiful, but still, credit where credit’s due – and buoyed by a mesmeric soundtrack, Timbuktu brushes beauty and humanity against an unfathomable ideology in one elegant, timely package.