Sunday, August 03, 2014


This beautiful but harrowing film is a portrait of life in and around the West African city of Timbuktu under militant Islamic control.The Islamic Police prowl the streets and the rooftop armed with machine guns and sometimes with a loud hailer, looking for anyone infringing on their particular brand of religion. Their brand is a joyless and often seemingly pointless one - no football, no music, no hanging out with the opposite sex, women must wear gloves and socks in the market place. Banning cigarettes and alcohol is also included but you can't help thinking that this is because people enjoy their consumption , rather than because they're bad for your health. Their brand is brutal, too - stoning, lashing and shooting seem all in the day's work.

The film focuses on people on both sides of the religious divide. On one side we have Kidane the Tuareg cattle herder, who lives in a tent outside town with his wife and daughter and on the other we have Islamic police themselves - Abdelkrim and his driver get the most screen time. While the police's religious doctrine isn't portrayed sympathetically ( this would be difficult, I think) they are portrayed as human . Abdelkrim's driver kindly tells him he doesn't need to go off and smoke secretly because all his fellow policemen already know he does it.

Kidane has a row with a fisherman neighbour who has killed one of Kidane's cows because it got tangled in his fishing nets. Kidane's gun goes off in the struggle and the fisherman is killed so Kidane ends up in the Islamic Court and things turn out badly.

Before you get too depressed, do remember that this is a beautiful film. Timbuktu is a world heritage site because of its amazing buildings and the surrounding desert is equally beautiful. Living in a Tuareg tent looks particularly romantic but it does make you vulnerable to unexpected visitors. The residents of Timbuktu are  physically attractive, but their  attitudes and lack of automatic acquiescence to their oppressors also make an impression. The Imam of the local mosque gently reproaching members of the police for bringing guns into the mosque while wearing shoes and criticising their theology was memorable and so was a woman explaining (via 2 translators!) that she didn't want her daughter to marry one of them because he was a complete stranger.

This isn't a film you'll forget in a hurry. One of the things I've been thinking about is what motivate religious people who are into harsh punishment regimes for (what westerners would consider) harmless pastimes. Is is because they enjoy the power, or are they motivated by concern for people's immortal souls? And on a less philosophical plane, who was the woman with the chicken and why did the police leave her alone?

Anne's rating 4.5/5    Ian's rating 5/5

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