In the Oscar nominated foreign language film “Timbuktu,” a 12 year old girl has a cell phone. Her parents own eight cows and some goats, so they must be fairly well off. Judging from the tent they live in and the amount of sand everywhere around them, being well off is a long way from the First World to Timbuktu.
What do you know about the country of Mali? What do any of us know about day to day life in a poor region in Africa? Cell phones may be surprisingly common, but pickup trucks only seem to be available to people imposing Muslim fundamentalism on a vulnerable population.
The 12 year old girl is being raised with tender commitment by her mom and dad. How is it that she already knows warriors die young? Dad knows that mom is scared and wants to leave like so many survivors in the community have. Dad says he’s scared too. He hopes, with faith in Allah, for the return of a saner time.
Even as director/writer Abderrahmane Sissako provides context for understanding a remote place, he seems to be saying that Muslim life cannot be reduced to a film. As art can do, however, this cinematic tale is more substantially reflective than paraded news coverage.
The film integrates dramatic tensions with different styles of effectiveness. A fish seller in an open air market dares enforcers to chop off her hands when they insist women must wear gloves. A field of boys plays soccer with an imaginary ball in a town where soccer is forbidden. A confrontation, worse than intended, splashes in a shallow desert river. “May God reward you,” a man says to a prison guard who contacts a worried wife.
“Timbuktu” may be too exotic for some – and not in the way movies typically apply glamor and intrigue to such opportunities. It purposely avoids the slickness and pace on which moviegoers too often depend. Too much separates us in our so-called shrinking world. Perhaps seeing a film like “Timbuktu” can help inform the distance.