Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020


Film Review


Radical and fundamentalist Islam has dominated the news for some time, mostly for bad reasons, with some arguing that their reactionary interpretations of the Koran do not really represent main stream Islam. Others opine that these expressions of intolerance, violence, and oppression of women do in fact reflect basic Islamic beliefs. But for those living in areas now under the control of radical Islam, this is no abstract question. Radical Islam's recent conquests are dramatically changing the culture of those falling under their rule, and not a day goes by without news accounts of shocking violence. All religions have been poorly served by fundamentalist zealotry including Christianity and Judaism. But does radical Islam really present a threat to America? Is our fear of radical Islam exaggerated? Has it caused us to make unwise foreign policy decisions, including two wars that we initiated, in which we are still heavily involved? A new film, Timbuktu, by Abderrahmane Sissako, explores these questions in the Sahel, that region between the southern Sahara Desert and the savanna to the south.

For those who never collected stamps, Mali was a French colony, part of French Sudan. it became independent in 1960 in that wave of independence of former European colonies in Africa. Much of Mali is located in the Sahel and desperately poor. Timbuktu, a western synonym for far away, is a historic trading center in Mali and at least 6 languages are spoken there. Sissako's film is set in 2012, just after Islamic rebels, taking advantage of the Malian civil war, captured the town and imposed their harsh rule. A year later, French and Malian troops drove the rebels out but periodic clashes continued.

Abderrahmane Sissako is a director and producer, born in Mauritania, worked in Mali, but living in France for the last 20 years. He is one of the few African film makers whose films have been widely screened in the West. His earlier film, Bamako (2007), won a number of awards. Sissako was inspired by the conflict in Timbuktu and his own views on Islam to write a screenplay. He began shooting a year later, but had to film in neighboring Mauritania rather than in Timbuktu itself because it was still held by the Islamists. And even in Mauritania, his crew was protected by a large contingent of troops. This is all real location shooting, no sets or sound stages here.

Timbuktu opens with a gazelle running though the desert, then the sound of shots, and we see a jeep filled with Islamists firing at the animal. The gazelle seems to escape, for now. Then we are in Timbuktu, a mud brick building town with low flat roofed buildings without windows, and narrow sandy streets and alleys. Two men with AK-47's ride into town on a motorbike, one using a megaphone to broadcast what is now forbidden under their interpretation of Shariah law: smoking, games and music. All women must wear veils, socks and gloves when outside and people are forbidden to sit on their own doorsteps. A female fish vendor argues with them, saying it would be impossible to handle the fish with gloves. More armed men appear, and begin to patrol the streets and roof tops. They are mostly Arabs from North Africa, who do not even speak the local language. In the mosque, the imam asks some of the armed jihadists why they are in a mosque, with guns and shoes. He asks them to leave, and surprisingly, they do. Later, the same imam discusses the nature of Islam and jihad with one of the Islamists, and points out the most important jihad is within one's self, to control anger, pride and arrogance. He cautions against treating people badly. It is an important scene that reflects the director's view that violence is not condoned by the Koran.

A second story begins to develop as we see Kidane, reclining in a large open tent in the desert, with his wife and 12 year old daughter. She is his "little bird". Kidane is a Tuareg, a desert nomad, with a treasured herd of 8 cows, including his favorite, hilariously named GPS. They are clearly a close loving family that includes a young orphan who herds the cows. Kidane and his wife worry about the future, wondering if they should leave the area, but conclude that they have no other place to go. One day GPS strays, and sets off a chain of events that becomes the film's main story. There are a number of characters here, all well developed, including the town's madwoman, who carries her pet chicken around while laughing, casting spells and intimidating the rebels. But the rebels are not intimidated by anything else and proceed to punish many for real and imagined offenses. Their punishments are not gentle.

Although the jihadists govern harshly with casual cruelty, Sissako shows their human foibles, especially hypocrisy. The rebel leader smokes out of sight, but his driver tells him that he should't bother hiding because everyone knows he smokes. Some of the rebels are arguing about who beat whom, and it is about soccer teams. However soccer playing has been banned, a ball seized, and players will be punished. In one of the best scenes of the film, young men from the town are playing soccer with an imaginary ball, with all of the expected motions and plays. The scene is magical, as the film maker shows the silliness of banning fun. Sisseko doesn't need to convince us of their cruelty but by showing their humanness, their anger, lust and greed, and rarely kindness, he makes them into much more than the cartoon figures we have come to expect.

This is a gorgeous film with outstanding cinematography, whether outdoor scenes or interior closeups. It has a wonderful intimacy. His principal actors are professionals but so fully inhabit their roles that they seem born into them. Timbuktu is very accomplished with a quiet power that lingers, and clearly the product of a gifted filmmaker. See this on the big screen. Timbuktu was nominated for a Palme d'Or at Cannes but didn't win. It is one of the five Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language film but will be competing against Ida. That's a shame because both are masterpieces and both deserve to win, although being one of the nominees is alone a significant recognition. Just opened at the Kabuki; does not appear to be playing elsewhere in the Bay Area. Running time: 97 minutes.

Return to the List of Film Reviews


Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com