Capturing beauty under the gun in ‘Timbuktu’

A lyric narrative examines the impact of Jihadists in Mali

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Toulou Kiki as Satima, Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino as Kidane and Layla Walet Mohamed as Toya in “Timbuktu”; Rating: PG-13, Grade: A

In the West, we cannot fathom what it is like to live life under the constant presence of oppression, with the fear of rules created and imposed arbitrarily, limiting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That phrase, which means so much to us, gets taken for granted, largely, here in the United States; but in other parts of the world, its absence squeezes what little blood might remain in hearts, that by all accounts should be close to stone.

And yet, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, who also wrote the screenplay with Kessen Tall, shows us that all of the hearts locked in such distress can still retain a fevered and graceful beat, pumping richly vibrant lifeblood through their attendant veins. “Freedom isn’t free,” is one of our simplistic Protestant ethic bon mots, speaking to the notion that everything, even our most basic ideals come only as a result of hard nose-to-the-grindstone work, a just reward for all the effort that should not be given away to those less eager to out the time in. Such a silly sentiment, especially in the face of the unequivocal evidence to the contrary provided by “Timbuktu.”

Sissako starts the film off with exactly what we might expect from a story involving Jihadists. We begin with a truckload of warriors with guns blazing, chasing wildlife across an open expanse. They are barking orders and squeezing off shots, looking (especially by Western accounts) like typical faceless storm trooper baddies, the kind whose never-ending rounds fail to find their target. Their prey darts and dances away, but we should not settle for the relief of a momentary escape. This scene sets the stage, illustrating how this senseless evil has settled and is much more than a cloud hovering over the proceedings; it is a real army, well supplied (as opposed to the creatures of nature and the human community under its boot), that is not going to leave. The rule of law is the gun, the pack of ever-present guns, and the whims of those sending the triggermen out amongst the people.

On the other end of the gun barrels though are men like Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a herder of cattle who seems somehow safely beyond the concerns and fears of the Jihadists. Kidane lives with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and the young shepherd Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed) who stands on the cusp of becoming a teenager (in this world, that places him at the doorstep of manhood).

As a man of a certain class status in society, Kidane enjoys the spoils of his position, but he is seen to be fair. He listens to his daughter’s thoughtful cajoling in regards to offering Issan a prized head of cattle for his work and loyalty. Kidane also displays a sensitive artistic soul, serenading his wife and daughter with guitar playing reminiscent of gypsy world blues (if such a needless label actually exists).

And there is more beauty, everywhere, in fact. In the coordinated play of young boys on a field, engaged in a game of football (soccer), chasing the ball and the wind, only to be warned by the men with guns that such play is suddenly verboten. The ball is confiscated, but the game continues in the hearts and minds of the players. The unfolding series belongs on an ESPN Sportscenter Top Ten highlight. The sequence unfolds from slightly above ground, bodies racing and reacting to a charge on goal, attacking, passing off, all before a bold strike and the eventual score – all without a ball. Offense and defense dreaming as one, executing this final play and the inevitable celebration, only to drift off into individual stretches and exercises when the Jihadists intrude upon the scene.

That is freedom, and Sissako shows us, in “Timbuktu,” the price when it is seized. Freedom is life. A reminder of what we so carelessly take for granted.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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