What or where is Timbuktu? It's the name of a place which my Form 1 teacher threatened he would send me to whenever I became unruly in class. But according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it's a city in the western African country of Mali at the southern edge of the Sahara, 8 miles north of River Niger which was historically important as a trading post on the trans-Sahara caravan route and a centre of Islamic culture (c. 1400-1600), which became a French colony in late 19th century (forming part of the French Sudan) but which became independent in 1960 when the Republic of Mali was established. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 but because of armed conflicts in the region, in 2012, it was declared a World Heritage in Danger.
As the film opens, we see a blind-folded man (Abel Jafri) being taken in a military jeep, with a fluttering flag with some Arabic words written on it, being taken to a tiny courtyard in a small town. There he was greeted and became one of the soldiers of the local jihadists controlling the town and the surrounding area. Then we see another jeep with a number of soldiers inside, one of whom in military uniform and a turban on his head, Abdelkerim, was aiming his rifle at a running gazelle. He kept firing shots at it but the gazelle kept running and we hear someone advise the hunter, "Don't waste your bullet, tire it". Then the screen switches to a target practice. The targets were some traditional African sculpture of local deities made of either either wood or clay. They were all shot down, one by one. In the last one, we see gun smoke rising from the mouth of the broken head of a local deity. Next we see a herd of cattle being tended to by a small boy Issan ( Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) watched by a couple Kidane ( Ibrahem Ahmed) and Satima ( Toulou Kiki ) and their daughter Toya ( Layla Walet Mohamed ) lying on their rug under a tent, far from the town, but close to each other, discussing how when Kidane dies, he would like to give the herd to Issan, his adopted son. When the film ends, we see two children, both running on the desert dunes, one a boy, Issan the other a girl Toyla. A lot has happened in the meantime.
The town has been taken over by a group of jihadists from elsewhere in the Sudan, led by Salem Dendou. They proclaim in loud hailers in several languages: French, English and the local dialect a series of prohibitions all said to be in accordance with the holy Qu'ran: first all women must have their head covered with a scarf, then they must all wear gloves (even when one is selling fish), then progressively all cigarette smoking, music and football are banned. We see the local jihadist entering the local mosque, gun in hand but was told by the local Imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif ) that they are not supposed to enter the mosque with guns in their hands because the mosque is a holy place for peace and for worship. They reply that they can do whatever pleases them because they are fighting a holy jihad but the Imam tells them that he too is fighting a jihad, a jihad to conquer all his moral failings, a jihad of the soul, for moral improvement and advises them to read holy Qu'ran. They leave, silent, heads down.
We are also shown too how when the requirement for all women to wear to a scarf on their head was imposed, a local woman clothed in a colorful dress, a cockerel in her hands and her hair full of little ribbons but no scarf would be allowed to walk openly in the streets her head held high past the rifle-holding soldiers charged with enforcing the proclamation without the slightest interference and how when the soldiers try to enforce the proclamation that all women must wear glove in public, the fish mongering woman ask them how she was supposed to sell fish with gloves on her hands and challenged them to cut off her hands for not wearing gloves. The soldier had no reply and left. We are also shown how, after the ban on music was imposed, when the soldiers patrolling on the rooftops heard some religious music, they did not know how to enforce the prohibition. When the ban on football was imposed, we are shown how the teenagers of the town continue to play "shadow football" on the football field without an actual football and the patrolling soldiers let them continue. We are also shown how one of the soldiers took a fancy to a local girl when her father was not around and against the Sharia, asked the girl's mother to give her away as his bride and how when her mother refused, he said he would have to do so by force. Later the girl's mother complained to the local Imam when her daughter was taken from her by force. The Imam went to see the judge who insisted that when he married the two, what he did was legal but without giving any reasons why he thought so according to Sharia law (the Muslim legal code based on the teachings of Prophet Mohammad).
The main story however, is about the family of Kidane and Satima. Satima wanted to leave the place as all her neighbors have done so but Kidane said he would stay. She did not raise any protest and accepted his decision. Then one day, when one of Issan's favorite cows, called GPS, wandered into the net of a local fisherman and he killed it with his spear, Kidane went to discuss the matter with him. They got into a quarrel, then a scuffle and in the confusion, the gun which Kidane was carrying inside his robe misfired and killed the fisherman. Kidane was brought before the jihadist's chief. Kidane told him that he was prepared to die and was not afraid because that was probably Allah's will. He asked the jihadist chief whether he had children and was told that he had two, one a boy of 8. Kidane then told him that though he was not afraid of death, his greatest misgiving would be that his death would leave his most beloved young daughter Toyla, also 8, without any father to protect her. Kidane was told to ask forgiveness from the fisherman's family. He said he did not intend to kill the fisherman and felt sorry that he was dead but he was not forgiven. The chief then told his translator that he felt sorry for Kidane too but asked him not to translate that to Kidane. He then asked Kidane how many cows he had. Kidane said originally 8, but now 7. The judgment was that he had to give 40 cows or death. It seemed that whenever any infringement of any proclamation occurred, the magic number of 40 would somehow always appear: it was 40 lashes for playing football, 40 lashes for singing and death for everything else eg. stoning until dead for any adultery and for Kidane, 40 cows or death. Kidane and Satima seemed prepared to accept whatever it was that would happen to them because they thought that's probably what Allah wanted to happen. But when Satima heard that Kidane was being tried, she rushed to the scene. But before reaching the town square where the execution was about to take place of execution. She was shot by a man on a motor cycle, probably a relative of the fisherman. We then see the gun carrying soldiers going after the motorcyclist who was seen to be running in the direction of the desert. It seems that every one is running, the gazelle, the soldiers, Issan and Toyla. From or to what? One is left pondering because there seems no rhyme or reason to the judgment the chief of the jihadists (who does not appear to know the true spirit of the Qu'ran), of what would be permitted and what would be prohibited and if there were any infringement of any prohibition, somehow the punishment would always either be 40 or death; everything seem to hang upon his totally arbitrary discretion! And in the meantime, all we got is violence and the use of force, but all in the name of Islamic jihad. which seems an omnipotent cover for all kinds of personal whims of those who wield power!
The cinematography is poetic. Some of the images are stunningly beautiful. So is the music. What appears on the screen seems calm, serene, peaceful, unruffled. Yet beneath that surface calmness lurks all kinds of violence: physical, moral and spiritual. The surface peace seems ironically and even dramatically to highlight the different kinds of visible and invisible violence of jihadist politics. Although generally all the cinematic images are amazingly beautiful, 3 scenes in particular stand out in their impact: the woman singer who is given 40 lashes for singing bursts out singing even more loudly during the latter part of her public corporal punishment and the teenagers of the town acted as if they really had a football under their feet at the football field. Both scenes seem calculated to show, without any words having to be spoken, on the one hand how the jihadist are concerned only with the literality of the law, never the reason behind the relevant prohibitions and on the other hand, the indomitable will of the people to strive for freedom, even under the most trying and even absurd circumstances. The third scene is the one in which Abdelkerim (who though a jihadist, was once caught smoking a cigarette by one his colleagues who told him that he knew that he had been doing that for quite a while but without informing on him to the jihadist chief) began to dance a quasi-ritual dance of freedom, imitating the movement of a bird in the courtyard of the woman seen dressed in colorful finery without wearing any scarf nor gloves earlier in the film whilst she lies on her rug under the sun, only casting an occasional glance at him. It seems that only in the privacy of the home of a woman and under her magical protection can the man find true freedom.
Timbuktu won 7 César awards for the best film best director, best original screenplay, best original music, best sound, best cinematography and best editing in 2015; the Francois Chalais Award and prize of the ecumenical jury at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival; the 2015 Lumiere Award for best film and best director; the award for Best director at the Chicago Film Festival 2014 and has been nominated for an Oscar for the best foreign language film 2015. I think I know why.