As low as $49 for one year. Save 59%.
As low as $49 for one year. Save 59%.

‘Timbuktu’ offers a grim portrait of oppression

Tom Long
The Detroit News

There’s an anguished breadth to the Oscar-nominated “Timbuktu,” a simple tragic tale that manages to illuminate the grim absurdities of oppression at the same time it juxtaposes the modern with the primitive.

Jihadists have taken over the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu in West Africa. They prowl the city’s narrow streets with rifles, shouting commandments through a bullhorn. All women must wear veils, gloves and socks. Music is outlawed — get caught singing in your own living room and it’s 30 lashes. Games and soccer are outlawed, even though the Jihadists argue among themselves about which international soccer teams are the best.

Adulterers get buried up to their necks and stoned to death. The Jihadists take the city’s women as wives with no regard for family or formality. Their leaders drive modern trucks across the desert sand, firing out the windows at wild animals who have no place to hide.

Doing his best to ignore all this is cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino). He lives in a large tent outside the city, among sand dunes, with his devoted wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and their 12-year-old shepherd Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohame). It’s an isolated existence, but Kidane is free to play his guitar and sing with his family at night.

Kidane is the film’s center, but director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako is doing far more than telling a story, he’s capturing the heart of a culture under duress. Soccer isn’t allowed? Fine — young men gather to play with an invisible ball. A brazen, colorful woman — perhaps mad, perhaps cagey — blocks the passage of a truck filled with irked Jihadists. A female fishmonger refuses to wear gloves while she works and she’s taken away. Resistance may be futile, but in such circumstances it also seems inevitable.

Eventually Kidane gets involved in an altercation — the way Sissako shoots the scene is both breathtaking and starkly real — that brings him to the attention of the Jihadists. The serenity of his life is shattered and all he can think of is his young daughter’s face.

The violence, hypocrisy and cruel dominance Sissako deals with speaks to a specific situation but reaches far beyond the confines of Timbuktu. This is the clash of ancient and modern, of rulers and ruled, of rabid dogma and the joys of daily life. It is a portrait of the ugly folly of imposed ideology, a too-common condition for far too many.



Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements

Running time: 97 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre

“Timbuktu” (PG-13) This foreign language Oscar nominee looks at Jihadists taking over an ancient city and imposing restrictions on its citizens even as an isolated cattle-herder tries to avoid getting involved with them. A moving portrait of oppression. (97 minutes) GRADE: A