Timbuktu (2014)

Here is a film I can’t shake. On the surface, Timbuktu plays like a textbook foreign film: the style is largely invisible, there are failed moments where Western techniques are copied and forced (like the musical climax as the cow G.P.S. heads for the fisherman’s nets), and the film communicates clearly until its final notes which make (of course) an open ending. Much like A Separation (2011) or The Lives of Others (2006), it’s the perfect entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. At the same time it, like many of the best films from other shores, powerfully tells a story that comes from worlds away.

Days after viewing the film, I’m still struck by Timbuktu. Here is a town that is neither industrialized nor isolated: many have cell phones (not smart phones, mind) and a handful of cars rumble down dirt streets between the clay walls of the buildings. The society is best described as pre-modern: Islam is ubiquitous, commerce is agrarian, and patriarchy reigns over all. Stripping away that artifices that distract from our own society’s structures, Timbuktu reveals the inherent tensions of male and female, law and freedom, and personal religion and theocracy. I can’t help wondering if the conflicts in the town—male control of female bodies, militaristic religion—are really more prevalent in this world or simply more visible. Certainly, to one degree or another, we face similar demons in the West and while we may have more freedom to openly combat these issues, the problems themselves may be more entrenched (if only in scale and complexity). If this question has an answer, I’m certainly not qualified to provide one, but I find it incredibly refreshing and important to experience art like Timbuktu and be shaken awake from my technological slumber. It is the kind of work that rewards meditation and that is a powerful thing.

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