Wednesday 9 December 2015

Timbuktu (2015) - Movie Review
Being "timely" in my line of work can only be seen as a bad thing. Either because the numerous references made to other media ends up dating each review or, more unfortunately, as a result of real-world news. This is very much in the latter category, as we’re dealing with a film involving Islamic extremists. With the world gripped in fear over the threat that ISIL poses, especially after the recent attacks, I’d almost say that this film shouldn’t be watched for a little while yet. After all, that fear is quickly turning us into the very thing that ISIL wants us to become to further their own causes, and I doubt that watching a film that could potentially give fuel to that fire would be helpful. But, maybe this could do the exact opposite. Maybe it could give some better perspective on the situation and, if I’m not asking for too much, lead us to acting a bit more rationally under the circumstances.

The plot: Set during the occupation of Timbuktu by the Islamic extremist group Ansar Dine in 2012, farmer Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) and his family are just trying to survive under their current living conditions. However, when an unexpected accident ends up with one of Kidane’s cows being shot dead, what follows is a slippery slope that not only ends up showing just how oppressive the rule of Ansar Dine truly is, but also how it ends up encompassing everyone as a result.

This is a beautifully shot film with near superhuman ability being exhibited by not only the director Abderrahmane Sissako, but also by cinematographer Sofian El Fani and editor Nadia Ben Rachid. The framing for every single shot is perfect, sometimes to rather dubious ends; maybe it’s my own perverted brain at work, but I could have sworn that this film featured an AK-47 bikini trim metaphor with someone shooting a tuft of grass down to size between some suspicious looking sand mounds. However, this is a film that rich in visual language that, given the themes of suppression throughout, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the intent of the scene; it worked surprisingly well if it was, as well. However, what makes these gorgeously composed shots of the desert landscape and its inhabitants work as well as they do is how they are put together. Every scene shows malice next to majesty, with the more heinous acts of the Ansar Dine being juxtaposed with some extremely graceful movements and very naturalistic conversations, not to mention A-grade wildlife footage. Credit needs to be given to Ahmed dit Pino, who embodies every ounce of tragedy and unfairness that the film has to offer but also all of its poise and humanity.

In terms of showing a government body taking forcible control over a territory, this does a disturbingly good job at portraying the suffocation of people’s freedoms. I highlight how good a job it does because, with the extents that Ansar Dine go to when it comes to enforcing Sharia law, it would be unfortunately easy for this to devolve into parody. I mean, we’re talking about music being made illegal, with rap music being singled out at one point as being sinful; this idea has been made fun of a few too many times by now. However, through both the stable performances of the cast and the grounded writing, it makes the numerous restrictions made work to further the film’s efficacy. It also works for the more obviously awful laws being passed, like the rampant misogynistic attitudes that make marrying women off without their consent out like a perfectly just idea. Even when we see people do less than moral acts like manslaughter and adultery, the punishment going far beyond what fits the crime creates some genuinely chilling imagery. For all those who applauded the Ashley Madison hack and client leak, you’ll think twice about that after watching this; I guaran-damn-tee it.

Unfortunately, despite this film’s ideal writing, it isn’t delivered in the most ideal fashion. Now, since this film is set in an area and time period that involved a lot of cultural mingling between the Muslims and the native Africans, the dialogue goes through several different languages, including French and even some English. Since we’re dealing with characters who are foreign to each other in more ways than one, a lot of the dialogue has to be translated between characters. Now, in one way, this works to the film’s advantage as it further illustrates the racial differences and tensions that ultimately fuelled the regime that took over Timbuktu in the first place. In another way, it also means that a hefty amount of the dialogue is repeated.

This is an hour and a half long film; the repetitive nature of the words being spoken, despite how good they are at first, ends up making this feel like it’s being padded out. When some of it works really damn well, like when Kidane is brought in to be sentenced, it starts to drag down once you realise that it is not only being echoed, but that it is being echoed at a remarkably slow pace. Yeah, even the repeated exchanges would have been passable if they didn’t feel like they were being drawn out at the same time. Between the two, it’s another case of what matters more: What works for the film, or what works for the film’s subtext. As a critic, I’m leaning towards the latter, but as your average movie-goer, I’m edging closer to the former. Let’s split the difference and say that the dialogue was fine being repeated, but it could have been handled a lot better than it was here.

All in all, even with this film’s dialogue issues, this is a beautifully realized production. The cinematography is stunning, the arrangement of the shots is great, the writing hits tyrannical while maintaining stability and the acting delivers that sentiment startlingly well. Since this shows that, no matter where you go, no-one wants to be ruled over in this fashion, maybe this film really cangive some perspective on the current situation with ISIL.

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