Thursday, February 12, 2015

Movie with Abe: Timbuktu

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Released January 28, 2015

It’s not often that you have the chance to watch a film from Mauritania. Many people have never even heard of the North African country, let alone any film industry existing within it. Unsurprisingly, this is the first time that Mauritania has submitted a film for Oscar consideration, and, luckily enough, it struck gold on its first try. “Timbuktu” is a slow-moving, brutal look at repression and anguish under militant Muslim rule that may be more notable for its impressiveness given where it comes from than its actual cinematic quality.

There are a number of threads in “Timbuktu” that are all tied together but prove to be difficult to follow closely. Gradually, more information is provided that adds considerable clarity to each situation, but it is easy to be confused early on as the film jumps around to various people within its title city. Frequent announcements are made by men with megaphones that new restrictions are in place, which include women needing to wear gloves and socks in public and music to be prohibited. Punishments are doled out in a way that will discourage others from ever repeating their offenses. People live and move about the society with a relative degree of freedom, but one wrong step can mean an utterly devastating consequence.

“Timbuktu” brings to life a frightening depiction of sharia law being enforced in a community, with its citizens strongly held back by the confines of what others believe. Some offenders are depicted as carefree and unwilling to relinquish what they see as basic rights, but it is clear that they have not fully prepared themselves for what happens once they have been caught. Stark stories are presented about a man dealing with the implications of vengeance and those seeking simply to gather and sing praises to Allah each night, deemed to be in violation of the law as imposed by those with the power to rule and destroy.

There are moments in “Timbuktu” where true cinematic intent can be seen, and the effect is lasting and haunting. Yet for the majority of the time, the focus and coherence is not there, with a smattering of assorted stories all being told at once in a fashion that does not present itself productively. The film’s overall message is also uncertain, since it showcases one example of a society under stifling religious role but does not take a determined stance on it. It’s great to see African countries producing ambitious films – Ethiopia’s strong “Difret” was also submitted for Oscar consideration last year – but this film doesn’t represent the best from around the world. It certainly wouldn't get my vote.


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