Timbuktu (2014) — Image via lesfilmsduworso.com

Timbuktu

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako (2014)

It has been more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe the intellectual dullness and ideological indifference she perceived in the notorious Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Since then, the term has become somewhat of a cliché, and an easily misappropriated one at that. It turns out, however, to be an almost-perfect description of the state of affairs director Abderrahmane Sissako relates in Timbuktu, his take on the short-lived occupation of that ancient Malian city by the militant group Ansar Dine and its allied foreign fighters.

Timbuktu is, for the most part, a subtle and understated film, but its first few minutes are anything but. First we see a group of militants on a truck chasing a gazelle across the desert. “Don’t kill it,” one of the militants says; “tire it.” Next we see another group of militants using what appear to be religious artifacts for target practice. These two symbolically laden scenes set the stage for everything that follows.

Timbuktu (2014) — Image via lesfilmsduworso.comThe primary thread running through Sissako’s film is the story of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a herder who lives in a tent in the desert outside of the city with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and their adopted son Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed). While all of their neighbors have left the area following the militant takeover, Kidane and Satima have chosen to remain, hoping to carry on their lives. But after fisher Amadou (Amadou Haidara) kills one of Kidane’s cows (named GPS in just one of several nods to the ubiquity of mobile technology) for wandering into his nets, the ensuing confrontation puts Kidane’s fate in the hands of the new authorities.

Woven in to Kidane’s story are numerous other scenes from life in Timbuktu under the control of the militants. Through these scenes, a few themes emerge concerning the occupiers. Though they act in the name of Islam and sharia, their grasp on the faith they claim to defend appears tenuous at best. They listen patiently to the protests of the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), but they either do not comprehend what he is saying or do not care. They seem committed to giving their behavior a veneer of civility, but only a thin one; for instance, when one of them politely asks a woman for her daughter’s hand in marriage and is rejected, he politely informs her that he will take the girl by force. They are also hypocrites; smoking and witchcraft are forbidden, but one of their leaders, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), indulges in both, only half-heartedly trying to hide his actions. It is unclear not only to us, the viewers, but also to most of the militants what exactly they are fighting for, other than their own power.

Timbuktu (2014) — Image via lesfilmsduworso.comMeanwhile, local residents struggle to express their humanity and resist the imposition of arbitrary rules on their everyday existence. In one indelible scene, a group of boys plays soccer with an imaginary ball, theirs having been confiscated. Throughout the film, the townspeople insist on making music, despite the fact that it is forbidden; in another unforgettable scene, a woman (Fatoumata Diawara), sentenced to 40 lashes for singing with friends in her home, breaks out into song while she is being whipped.

Clearly, in choosing which stories to tell and how to tell them, Sissako has stacked the deck against the militants, but there is nothing crude or cartoonish about his portrayals of them. Though they do heinous things (most heinously, stoning to death a couple accused of adultery), they often seem more hapless than consciously malicious. They have doubts and uncertainties, yet they persist in doggedly applying their simplistic formulas. At times, their actions seem almost surreal — yet the consequences of those actions are very real, and that is what makes Arendt’s famous phrase an apt one. For although nothing the militants do is on the scale of Eichmann’s facilitation of systematic mass slaughter, they are ultimately responsible for acts of evil, and it is all the more shocking for their apparent lack of zeal.

Though eschewing many conventional narrative devices, Timbuktu proves accessible and engaging, partially due to Sissako’s attention to the humor inherent in even the most serious of situations, as well as his eye for beautiful images and poetic juxtapositions. While anyone looking for a documentary-like exposition of recent events in northern Mali is likely to be disappointed, lovers of humane and artistically rich filmmaking will not be. After hosting four screenings this weekend, the Walker Art Center will show Timbuktu three more times next weekend, followed by its return Apr. 4 as part of a three-day retrospective of Sissako’s work with the director present.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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