Timbuktu (2014 film)

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Timbuktu poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Written by
  • Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Kessen Tall
Produced bySylvie Pialat
Étienne Comar
Remi Burah
Oliver Pere
CinematographySofian El Fani
Edited by Nadia Ben Rachid
Music byAmine Bouhafa
Distributed byCohen Media Group
Release dates
  • 15 May 2014 (2014-05-15)(Cannes)
  • 10 December 2014 (2014-12-10)(France)
Running time
96 minutes [1]
  • Mauritania
  • France
Box office$7.2 million [3]

Timbuktu is a 2014 Mauritanian-French drama film directed and co-written by Abderrahmane Sissako. The film centres on the brief occupation of Timbuktu, Mali by Ansar Dine, and is partially influenced by the 2012 public stoning of an unmarried couple in Aguelhok. Shot in Oualata, Mauritania, Timbuktu was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Prize. [4] [5] [6] Timbuktu was chosen as Mauritania's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and went on to be nominated for the prize at the 87th Academy Awards; it was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language at the 69th British Academy Film Awards. [7] [8] Timbuktu was named Best Film at the 11th Africa Movie Academy Awards, where it was nominated for ten further awards. [9] In 2017, The New York Times ranked it the 12th best film of the 21st century so far. [10]



Sissako's film subtly transitions to village life after a suspenseful scene in which a group of men armed with automatic rifles chase a gazelle over sandy expanses in an effort to exhaust the animal. Dreadful undercurrents initially appear as little irritations. A man passing by is told, "Roll up your pants, it's the new law," by a man with a gun. A lady selling fish is told to put on gloves in compliance with what the men holding firearms claim to be Sharia law; she objects, saying she can't handle the fish while wearing gloves. A religious leader objects to some guys carrying weapons inside a mosque. so forth. Outside the village, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattleman of modest means, cheerfully resides with his wife and daughter.The daughter has a cell phone, despite the fact that they appear to be nomads who spend their nights in tents. Like most people in this sub-Saharan region, they appear to be caught somewhere between the ancient and the post-modern. This situation produces a unique set of contradictions, which the occupying jihadists abuse. Satima (Toulou Kiki), Kidane's wife, has for some reason—possibly due to her beauty—caught the attention of Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), the leader of the so-called jihadists.

Although it seems like there is no hope in sight, the animating conflict of the film turns out to be something that is more akin to the Old Testament, at least from the viewpoint of a Western viewer. After Kidane loses a cherished cow to a local fisherman's spear because he was enraged that the beast had ventured into his net. Kidane foolishly carries a weapon when he sets out to seek retribution. When the worst occurs, the ruling jihadists step in to police the situation and advise Kidane to try to organize his affairs because he cannot escape the fate that, according to him and his captors, he cannot control. The aftermath is then shown in an incredible long take shot from a great distance. Abdelkerim views Kidane's situation as an opportunity to make a "good" impression on Satima, but he will also discover that some situations are out of his control.



Timbuktu isn't just a film about jihadism. It's a film about the vibrant cultures jihadism can eradicate if it continues to spread.Throughout the film, subsidiary scenes show the reactions of Timbuktu's residents to the jihadist rule. A female fishmonger is made to wear gloves whilst selling fish; a woman is taken overnight and forcibly married after her family decline a jihadists' offer of marriage; a woman is lashed for singing and for being in the company of men not in her family; a couple are stoned to death for adultery. [11]

The film acknowledges the failure of the jihadists to live up to their own rules. Abdelkerim hides his smoking but it is common knowledge among his fellow occupiers; football is banned but a group of French jihadists are seen discussing their favourite football players. [12]

They are also observed to be less knowledgeable and secure in their convictions; they do not know how to respond when a woman is found singing, but in praise of Allah, nor when local men play football with an imaginary ball. In conversations with the local imam, the jihadists cherrypick aspects of sharia law in order to justify their actions. When attempting to make a propaganda video, a jihadist admits he lacks conviction in what he is saying. [13] [14]

The characters speak Arabic, French, Tamasheq, Bambara, and English, as noted in the constant use of translation and interpretation on the jihadists' parts to aid them in enshrining their interpretation of sharia to the city. The traditional ways of life are interspersed with the modern, such as characters, even the nomadic Tuareg in the desert, communicating by mobile phones; the jihadists recording propaganda with a camera and lamp.


The film, Sissako's fifth, was inspired by the true story of a young, unmarried couple, who were stoned to death by Islamists in Aguelhok, a rural region in eastern Mali. Sissako originally wanted to make a film about slavery in Mauritania, but this storyline was deemed unacceptable by the country's president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Sissako agreed to instead make a film on jihadists, with the support of the Mauritanian government, who provided financial and human resources to the filmmaker. Sissako had initially intended to film in Timbuktu, but resorted to Mauritania after a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint near the city's airport. [13]


Critical reception

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 98% approval rating and an average rating of 7.70/10 based on 124 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads: "Gracefully assembled and ultimately disquieting, Timbuktu is a timely film with a powerful message." [15] It also received a score of 92 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 31 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". [16] According to both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, Timbuktu is the best reviewed foreign-language film of 2015. [17] [18]

Jay Weissberg of Variety writes: "In the hands of a master, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones. Abderrahmane Sissako is just such a master." [19] In a review for The Daily Telegraph , Tim Robey suggested it was a "wrenching tragic fable, Aesop-like in its moral clarity." He went on to say it was "full of life, irony, poetry and bitter unfairness." [20]

In the Financial Times , Nigel Andrews called it "skilful, sardonic, honourably humane." [21] Reviewing it for The Guardian , Jonathan Romney called it, "witty, beautiful and even, sobering though it is, highly entertaining" as well as "mischievous and imaginative." He concluded that it was "a formidable statement of resistance." [22]

Sight & Sound 's Nick Pinkerton says "The fact remains that there are few filmmakers alive today wearing a mantle of moral authority comparable to that which Sissako has taken upon himself, and if his film has been met with an extraordinary amount of acclaim, it is because he manages to wear this mantle lightly, and has not confused drubbing an audience with messages with profundity. I can’t imagine the film having been made any other way, by anyone else – and this is one measure of greatness." [23]


Following its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Timbuktu won two awards; the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Prize. The film won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Language Film [24] and the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film, [25] and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language. In 2016, it was voted the 36th best film of the 21st century as picked by 177 film critics from around the world. [26]

At the 11th Africa Movie Academy Awards, Timbuktu won the most prizes with five, including for Best Film, Best Director (for Sissako), Best Child Actor (for Walet Mohammed and Mohammed), Best Film in an African Language, and Achievement in Editing; in total, the film received 11 nominations. [9]

See also

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