Timbuktu is not actually Timbuktu, nor does it need to be. Being shot in Oulata (Mauritana) takes nothing away from this magnificent movie. It does, however, add a new level of depth to it as it veers from traditional tourist itineraries, new or remote.
This Timbuktu is not Timbuktu. It is a Timbuktu. A theoretical town, yet real, on the edge of the great African desert.
Its geographical position is, however, essential, from a medium-scale perspective. It could be Mali, Mauritania, or Niger; It is a cultural confluence, not of a deserted desert, but of a passage desert, an area of communion between Islamized Saharan and North African communities.
The shock, relative yet increasing, triggered by the arrival of these trained advocates of strict religious doctrine, spreads both to the local communities and to the ones that arrived to enforce it. This paradox is masterfully interpreted, and particularly poetic.
All the characters, from the passing to the lasting, are complexly human, diverse and contradictory. What to say of the fishmonger, transiting from exalted bravery to the subsequent urge to escape the fear? Or Abdelkerim, the staunch smoker, who covets his neighbor’s wife, yet we will never know if he took any actions to save her husband? Or Kidane, a good father, a peaceful man, musical and poetic, but also a resistant that refuses to abandon his retracting space of freedom – a peaceful man who, by partial misfortune, takes another man’s life? Or the majority of the militant jihadists, featured in such a diverse way from European views, for good or bad. Perhaps given their “imperfect arabization”, they discuss so passionately a forbidden game; have no reaction before songs of praise to the Prophet, declaring music to be a forbidden activity, or acting with such tolerance and mildness, contrary to their mission. This aspect is particularly overt with Omar, Abdelkerim’s driver.
The movie goes beyond its countless powerful images – like the unforgettable scene of the singer being beaten for her music, freeing herself from pain by singing; Kidane staggering away from the river that now separates him from the fisherman he just killed, or the soccer game with an imaginary ball. These images leave us enough space to wander way beyond its perfect 97 minutes. And for that, it is quite unique.
Personally, this movie awakened a part of my “Portuguese soul” so silently marked by the poetic fatalism of the northwest African communities that for 781 years dwelled within the Iberian Peninsula, and were the driving force of our Islamic occupation.
In reality, we are in the presence of a a work of art that shouldn’t be missed.