Free-viewing Assignment: Timbuktu

Timbuktu, a French and Mauritanian movie directed by Abderrahmane Sissako in 2014, was created to tell the stories of Malians who, in 2012, were forcibly placed under jihadist local governments and made to live according to extremist Islamic law, robbing many of long-standing cultural freedoms. The film was shot in cinemascope.

I found this movie profound, necessary, visually stunning, and incredibly moving. One review dubbed it the “movie that dares to humanize Jihadists” (in very stark opposition to films such as American Sniper), and I believe this honesty and widen perspective allowed the film to be multi-dimensional and meaningful. The use of color was incredible, both in the costuming and the cinematography, emphasizing the vitality the Jihadists seemed to drain from the townspeople (compare, in the above stills, the vibrant colors the boys playing soccer wear and the bland neutrals of the jihadists). Motion was also a tool in revealing the ideological chasm in between the people of Timbuktu and the jihadists. In the above pictured scene, jihadists stormed into a mosque to force the spiritual leader to adhere to their new laws. The smooth tracking of the camera, as well as the peaceful townspeople, deep in their prayers, make the jihadists’ movement even more jolting and inappropriate. The scene also emphasized the important difference between Jihadist teachings and the tolerant Islam traditionally practiced by the people of Mali. The film utilized deep space to create the sensation of the desert’s vastness and also to exploit the power dynamics and emotional distance between characters. The soundtrack in the film was also especially powerful, because it was authentic regional music and it was used so sparingly, mirroring the jihadist ban of music within the film.

I particularly noticed exceptional cinematic technique in the scene in which the herdsman murders the fisherman after the fisherman has killed his prized cow, GPS, which had become tangled in the fisherman’s fragile nets. As pictured above (in a still from the trailer, in which this shot was chosen to bear the film’s title), the shot is so extremely long that both men become abstractly small while the herdsman crosses the lake away from his victim. As the fisherman struggles in the shallow waters, having been stabbed with one of his own fishing spears, his futile floundering while he resists imeminent death, from the perspective the shot gives, looks just like that of a fish. The herdsman, even from far away, also displays clear anguish at what has happened, an exhibition of a motif throughout the film that even those who commit atrocious acts still retain quiet humanity.

Shot dynamics also contributed to the fierce power of the Haitian voodoo woman (pictured above), whose spiritual power against the jihadists is explored by physical augmentation, as she is shot from below or given large, striking costumes.

This film sought to show the points of view of all involved in the conflict, including the jihadist aggressors. The majority of screen time went to a local herdsman and his wife and daughter, as well as the leader of the local jihadist regime. Scenes with the herdsman and his family allowed the viewer to come into their tent and genuinely understand their experience and life as people of Timbuktu. Scenes with the jihadist soldiers revealed that they not only suppressed those around them with their laws, but themselves as well. Two scenes I found especially sad were ones of this nature. In the first (see above), a local rapper was forced to abandon his passion and make jihadist propaganda denouncing music, especially rap, as a sin, but he could not bring himself to do this convincingly and instead appeared heart-wrenchingly broken. In the other, the jihadist leader, who has come to the Haitian woman’s house to punish her, dances passionately by himself, thinking he will not be seen. The liberation and expression in his movement tell of his own self-imprisonment.

I channeled the emotion and aesthetic of this film into a photo series, in which I aimed to capture the emotional progression of the people of Timbuktu. I styled my friend Frances (who accompanied me to see the film) in colorful scarves but put her against a starkly bare background of golden hills (a Californian equivalent to the Malian desert) to play with color in the style of the film. Her strong acting and the camera angles contributed to powerful shots.

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