Wednesday, October 01, 2014

NYFF ’14: Timbuktu

They are the new racist imperialists. When Islamist jihadists overran large swaths of Mali, they ravaged the centuries old World Cultural Heritage sites and imposed a rigid yet arbitrary form of Sharia Law on the hitherto tolerant Muslim population. The enormity of the resulting occupation is captured on a personal, gut level in director-co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (trailer here), Mauritania’s first official foreign language Academy submission, which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Despite the efforts of the local Imam, a man of good conscience, the occupying jihadists enforce a severe brand of Islamic law. Music is prohibited, women’s dress must be modest, and young girls are to be awarded to faithful enforcers, as if they are simply another kind of plunder. Unfortunately, Sharia Law is quite a handy tool for those bearing a grudge, like the widow of the fisherman Kidane accidentally killed in an argument. Despite their increasing sympathy for the dedicated husband and father, the ruling council will impose the unyieldingly harsh judgment their religious ideology dictates.

Sadly, it is not just Kidane who will suffer the Islamists’ wrath. Many residents who always considered themselves good Muslims will face torturous sentences. Yet, despite the outrages it vividly dramatizes, Timbuktu is an eerily quiet film. In a sublimely beautiful, tragically brief episode, a group of young Malians join together for a moment of musical respite. It ends heartbreakingly badly, in a scene reminiscent of The Stoning of Soraya M.

Not only should Timbuktu be a contender for the foreign language Oscar (given Sissako’s considerable international reputation), it also deserves a look for Sofian El Fani’s unsettlingly gorgeous cinematography. Frankly, Ibrahim Ahmed also deserves to be in contention for his deeply humane, unflaggingly intense portrayal of Kidane, but that is probably pushing it.

In many respects, Timbuktu is a true work of art, but it is also timely cinematic journalism, exposing the Islamist crimes against man and culture that were woefully under-reported in the western press. Sissako dramatically captures the intolerance and arrogance that led to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by their like-minded brethren. In all honesty, you almost need to watch Timbuktu twice, because the first viewing is so overpowering. Fortuitously, Cohen Media Group will be releasing Timbuktu in the near future, following its screenings tonight (10/1) at Alice Tully Hall and tomorrow (10/2) at the Gillman, as part of this year’s NYFF.