Timbuktu DVD review Review

To read of violent occupations in the small towns of war torn countries today barely registers an expression of surprise, such is the frequency with which it is reported. Something the headlines inevitably fail to allow us to understand, however, is the reality of this for both the oppressors and the oppressed. Timbuktu, Adberrahmane Sissako’s Oscar nominated film, explores with great emotional complexity a sadly all too familiar story in a way that is at once touching, harrowing and inspirational.

This beautifully shot film is set in the small town of Timbuktu in Mali, Western Africa, during a brief occupation by Islamic fundamentalists in 2012, as they impose a violent form of Sharia Law. Reportedly inspired by the public stoning of a couple for having children out of wedlock, Timbuktu examines the impact of the occupation on the villagers, carefully exploring themes of oppression and resistance, joy and despair, with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety. It is refreshing given the more common media depictions of such events that we have become accustomed to.

As such Timbuktu is able to capture the brutality and devastation in a captivating and truly emotionally engaging way. The antagonists are depicted as having a level of relatable emotional complexity far beyond mere fanatic evil; one jihadist is a young man clearly out of his depth shouldering feelings of doubt and regret about what is happening around him. Another fails tragi-comically in his task to create a recruitment video as he attempts to read from a personal script he clearly has no belief in.

None of which is to suggest that Timbuktu sugarcoats the horror of the story’s central predicament. As football and music are banned, the initial reaction of disbelief at the absurdity of the new regime is replaced by fear as force is used to implement a way of living at odds with the traditions of the subjugated. A young woman is caught playing music and singing with a male neighbour for which she receives a horrific lashing. We watch on for what feels like eternity as she weeps silently in the sand.

The central characters of Timbuktu, a young family of herders, are on the periphery of events in the main village, both literally in that they live just outside the town, and figuratively in that for the most part they are able to continue life as normal without much interference. That is until the story’s defining moment, interestingly triggered by a conflict completely secular in nature, brings them into contact with the forces of oppression they’ve been so desperate to avoid. In these moments we come to understand that ultimately tyranny is, by its very nature, omnipresent.

Along with its stunning visuals, Alan Smith’s cinematography captures the desert landscape in all its shimmering glory, Timbuktu stands out because of the way it delicately balances a multitude of conflicting emotions. It conveys so brilliantly that even in times of tragic oppression the human experience is a contradictory and multifaceted one, in which a capacity for joy and communion not only remains, but also burns bright at the forefront of our experience.

In terms of extras on the disc there is the standard theatrical trailer as well as a beautiful music video to for the song ‘Fasso’ by Fatoumata Diawara and Amine Bouhafa, which features in the film. It’s a lovely video, probably best enjoyed after having watched the film, that really captures the spirit of Sissako’s picture.

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