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Film Review: Timbuktu

Posted on 03rd June 2015 |

Timbuktu, showing for one week in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5th June, offers a fascinating and provocative insight into a world that we’ve only glimpsed through news reports...

At Cinemagic, many of our festival screenings involve showing young people films from across the world – offering examples of how different countries tell stories, and create windows into different cultures. With Timbuktu, director Abderrahmane Sissako offers one of the most complete examples of this, and of how different cinema can be from the norm of Western filmmaking.

Set in the city of Timbuktu, this film, nominated in the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, explores how normal life tries to continue in the midst of occupation by Islamic State. Women are forced to cover up, singing and sports are forbidden and strict curfews are enforced.

Feeling at times more like a documentary than a drama, the film follows its main character, Kidane, as a tragedy brings him to the attention of IS. His story, and how it impacts his wife and daughter, unfolds along with a series of standalone incidents, all of which illustrate different aspects of life under the control of religious fundamentalists.This approach introduces us to a wide range of characters, and also highlights the spectrum of personalities within the city.  With the exception of the IS members, all of these characters show ways in which the legitimacy of the occupants’ beliefs are challenged; An imam questions the morality of jihad as well the authority of the group’s leader to oversee a wedding (without the bride’s consent); a group of boys insist on playing football, even when the ball itself is removed; and young friends insist on breaking curfew to meet and play music. There is clearly resistance to the occupation, but crucially, it is all non-violent.

The result is a city population for whom the audience will certainly have sympathy but surprisingly, the same can, to an extent, be said of the occupants. The film makes the point that not everyone associated with the organisation is as committed to its goals as others. Despite the sports ban, IS members talk about their favourite footballers; a younger member struggles to convincingly explain why he joined the group and some even smoke in private. Likewise several of the film’s lighter moments feature these characters – in particular the ongoing driving lessons being given to a senior member by a junior. The hypocrisy of IS is plain to see, but rarely directly pointed out. Instead, the audience is allowed to make up their own minds about each character, resulting in a much more engaging tale.

The performances of the cast are the closest thing to a weak link that Timbuktu has. Many are clearly not regular actors, yet this adds to the authenticity of the film – creating that documentary feel mentioned above. This too helps the audience believe in the world that Sissako presents. If any characters were recognizable actors (and perhaps in Mali, some of them are), it would distract from the story and remind you that this is a film – no matter how based in reality it is.

Tips for young filmmakers:

Beyond its compelling story and interesting characters, the film serves as a reminder that technical tricks are not always essential to making a good film. Timbuktu has some examples of beautiful cinematography, yet always keeps it very simple. For example, the aftermath of a pivotal fight plays out within one static wide shot of a river. The two characters involved are specs in the distance, so small on the screen that it is difficult to look at one without losing sight of the other. It is a long and quiet scene that, as with many parts of the film, allows the audience time to consider what has happened and what ramifications this might have for the characters involved.

The same can be said for the sound, which here relies as much on what we don’t hear as what we do. Music is used rarely and when done so, offers an excellent example of how tension can be created through sound. Conversations are riddled with long pauses and rivalries are conveyed through silence as often as through argument. Simple techniques, but effective and a fantastic example of what young filmmakers can achieve through keeping thing simple

Overall, this is a quiet, but powerful movie which offers an incredibly relevant insight into a regime and part of the world that we’re only seeing glimpses of in news reports. Sissako’s tale has credibility, honesty and successfully humanises both sides of the conflict. The film may be set in Timbuktu, but Sissako’s world is so relatable, it could be anywhere that Islamic State operate.

5/5: Fascinating, believable and haunting – a must see.

In Queen's Film Theatre Belfast  from Friday 5th June. Certificate 12A

Timbuktu, Dir: Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014

Review by Sean Boyle

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