Arts Review, Movies


Timbuktu featured image

Abderrahmane Sissako, dir. & co-script w/Kessen Tall
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed (Kidane), Abel Jafri (Abdelkerim), Toulou Kiki (Satima), Layla Walet Mohamed (Toya), Mehdi A.G. Mohamed (Issan)

We’ve all heard the expression “from here to Timbuktu” and many will recall old Disney cartoons and British adventure novels where the legendary African city appears. In a recent survey in England, 66% of young Anglos believed that Timbuktu was a myth. Actually, Timbuktu, an ancient trading centre in Mali, just north of the Niger River and at the entrance of the Sahara desert, has been evoked in legendary accounts starting with those of Leo Africanus in the 16th century.

In the spring of 2012, the modern tale of Timbuktu became all too real as Tuareg rebels fighting for the establishment of a strictly conservative Muslim state combined with the militant forces of Ansar Dine to take over the city. For the next eight months, the moderate Islamic citizens of Timbuktu were subjected to the harsh sharia laws of the most conservative of all Muslim sects.


The Mauritanian-Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako has made a film about that terrifying time in his Oscar nominated feature Timbuktu. In it, he offers a series of stories of those affected by sharia. A young woman caught singing with a couple of male musicians is given 80 lashes to her back. An unmarried couple found alone in a room together is stoned to death. A girl who refuses to become betrothed to a young Tuareg soldier is kidnapped and forced into marriage.

The local imam, a saintly and well-spoken man, tries to argue the Koran and the idea of jihad (which to him means “inner struggle”) to the sharia leaders. He gets nowhere.


The main story in Timbuktu is the most tragic of all. Kidane, a  cow-herder married to the beautiful Satima has a lovely daughter Toya, who means everything to him. Their idyllic existence is shattered when Kidane inadvertently kills a fisherman in a fair fight. Unless he can provide 40 cattle to the fisherman’s family, he will have to die—and Kidane only has seven calves. While Kidane’s fate becomes clear, what remains unknown is what will happen to his beloved Toya, and by extension, the future of Timbuktu and other moderate Islamic cities.

Timbuktu is beautifully directed by Sissako and while the film is certainly political and quite emotional, time is allotted to give the viewer a sense of what life has been like in a somewhat sleepy African community for centuries. This film is both a condemnation of the worst aspects of some Islamic societies and a lovely demonstration of how successful a city and community like Timbuktu can be when left alone to practice a more humanistic form of the teachings of the Koran. Timbuktu is an important film right now, when debates about Islam are mounting in the West. And, who knows? It could win the best foreign film Oscar.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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