For many Americans, the problems of the outside world seem so distant, especially those of different cultures. One of the best avenues for seeing the lives and plight of other peoples is cinema, and “Timbuktu” illuminates the lives of some Malian citizen in modern times, illustrating the struggle of communities under the grips of ISIS forces.
In Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. When ISIS gains ground in their war, the family’s lives are upended by a new reign of restrictive laws and personal vendettas.
“Timbuktu” does a good job of showing a wide range of life throughout the town. Kidane and his family are the focus of the story, but various subplots involving other people are explored which contribute to the theme of personal liberty being curtailed by religious dogma. It’s very much like a Robert Altman film in a way.
Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako was born in Kiffa, Mauritania and lived in Mali as a child, adding credence and authenticity to the film. This is a portrait of Malian life through the eyes of a Malian, not the vision of a white filmmaker on how he interprets Timbuktu and ISIS. The film feels real. You can almost run your hand in the sands of the town as you watch it.
Seeing Timbuktu come under the control of radicals is heartbreaking and we gain a connection to Kidane’s family. Though we may be separated by oceans, culture, language and even faith, we are similar in so many ways and seeing their freedom stripped from them gives an American audience greater empathy with world events. At the same time, “Timbuktu” tells an interesting story that’s not defined solely by political outreach or themes. Kidane, Satima,Toya and Issan are interesting characters with interesting character arcs. The film is a historical artifact in a way, giving a glimpse into a story most of us only see snippets of on CNN.