Timbuktu (aka Le chagrin des oiseaux) review by Adrijan Arsovski - Cinema Paradiso
Timbuktu is a film of visual mastery that tells a nuanced story of contemporary rural people trying to live their lives while shackled by absurd laws of ancient times. Its neutral stance and artistic measure calls for both admiration for the community living in such harsh conditions and frustration for the barbaric conduct of their totalitarian occupiers.
It starts by showing a wild animal running for its life, during which jihadists fire shots not to kill it – but to tire it and scare it off. Afterwards, they take aim at some African statues of what’s implied as some sort of significant cultural inheritage. Clearly, no matter their painfully neutral depiction in Timbuktu – it’s clear they’re not the good guys.
Then, at first, it may seem the movie jumps from one character to another and lacks clear proponents. This turns out not to be true however, owing to the fact that Timbuktu acts as a setting, a character and a playground for the flow of life. In this regard, Timbuktu is the protagonist and all events revolve in and around it -- something similar to Ivo Andric’s bridge on the Drina in his novel of the same name, or the house in Chasing Sleep (2000). Not all characters need be human.
The visuals are masterfully done – it almost feels like one’s in the Malian deserts, accompanied by the sounds of eastern strings and the occasional nod to modernity through a cultural diverse melody played on a classical guitar. The people in Timbuktu are real – they speak French, English, Arabic, Tamasheq, Bambara and Songhay; they play football (although without an actual ball because it’s forbidden by the Sharia law); they smile, love and are deeply afraid for their lives.
Timbuktu brings up several conflicts, which through means of irony – are not caused by the jihadists – they act as “the hand of God” and only execute his will – or so they think they do, with Kalashnikovs strapped on their shoulders. The subversive humor of absurdity is hard to neglect: the jihadists ban football, yet talk about the World Cup; they don’t allow cellphones, yet besides the walkie-talkie – it’s their only form of communication; they shoot shrubs, smoke cigarettes and some of them look as they’d better be off home. At moments, one can be distracted by their tolerance and compassion – but this proves to be false as the film goes on to show.
Timbuktu is a great essay to introduce Westerners to cultures other than theirs, with director Abderrahmane Sissako offering a neutral storytelling approach that may infuriate some, alienate others – and leave no one to indifference.