Coming from a world of academia with a focus on social justice issues, it is sometimes easy to forget that certain nuances of world affairs are lost on many people. Take, for instance, the distinction between the religion of Islam and the terrorist organizations that have appropriated Islam as a tool. Many Western people don’t make the distinction, and equate the violence committed by militarist factions as their only conception of what Islam is really about. It is therefore all the more unfortunate that many Western film audiences will ignore or be ignorant of Timbuktu, a film that directly addresses that distinction but is relegated to the indie circuit by virtue of its foreign origins.
Taking place in the titular city, a militaristic group called ISIL (a none-too-subtle nod to a certain real life militant extremist group) has taken over the city, bearing guns and spouting new rules in the name of God. Prohibitions on women’s dress, cigarettes, soccer, and even music are implemented, placing the city on virtual lockdown as tensions between the militants and the city’s residents begin to mount.
What is most striking about this set-up is that it is painfully obvious that the militants do not believe the rhetoric that they spout. Many are seen smoking or talking about sports, despite their compatriots’ mandates that such acts are sinful and against the will of God. At one point, a militant calls his superior to ask what he should do about a group of singing townspeople, as their song is in direct reverence to God. It would almost be comical if the situation weren’t so obviously dire for the people imprisoned within their own city. This point is hammered home no more clearly when punishments start being meted out, resulting in severe brutalization and often death.
If the film has one major issue, however, it should be apparent in what is missing in my review thus far: a protagonist. Sure, the residents of Timbuktu are all sympathetic, but none of them are anything more or less than normal people without any sort of character arc. Eventually, one resident develops into a makeshift protagonist, but the driving action behind his arc doesn’t take place until over halfway through the film, and by that point his case is merely especially demonstrative than anything specifically relatable. That may have been the point though, to tell a tale of a city rather than of a single person; but if that’s the case, it seems strange to have a protagonist shoehorned in so late in the running.
That quibble aside, though, Timbuktu is a fine film that eloquently hammers home a point that will, unfortunately, be likely already obvious to a Western audience culturally aware enough to know of this film's existence. It may have been a better film as a short subject with a tighter narrative structure, but that would have made even many film fanatics miss out due to a lack of distribution. As the film stands, it is a fine piece of filmmaking that is well worth watching, even if you are aware of the difference between religion and rhetoric as a means of social control.