Sunday, December 13, 2015


“Timbuktu” has always been a place-name summoning up the idea of way out at the edge of the world.  And there is a philosophical notion that at the edge of the world is the very center of the world, the place where things are pure and basic.  This film responds to that.  The plot is no-plot, the dialogue is a plurilogue of people talking on mobile phones.  The ethic is you-can-do-whatever-you-CAN-do.  "The languages include Tamasheq, Bambara, Arabic, French, and on a few occasions English" -- with sub-titles in a black space at the bottom.  Not that you’re ever in any doubt about what is being said anyway.  The critics loved this film. I do, too.

First a diversion:  I was attending a teacher’s conference aimed at teachers on reservations.  A nun claimed she had solved the problem of bad grammar among her ESL students.  She would introduce the English suffixes and prefixes and indicators of gender and number into THEIR languages, teach them to the kids, and then they would come back to English with their new understanding.  The idea was an enormous amount of work and not rooted in basic world conceptualization but rather in the rote learning used in English classrooms.  Of course, so far it hadn’t really worked that well.  They just stared at her.

I was scandalized.  How DARE she meddle with culture and minds like that?  Only by being not only stupid but totally convinced that there was only one way to be in the world -- her way, which she understood to be authorized by the Pope and her principal.

Sitting there fuming, red-faced and muttering, I was asked by the woman next to me -- clearly an experienced teacher -- “How long have you been teaching Indians?”

“Two years.”

“What do you think the chances are that this woman will make her plan succeed?”

Already acquainted with the power of passive resistance, I laughed.  “Not a chance.”  We leaned back in our chairs, agreeing on reality.

“Timbuktu” is much more violent in its consequences -- Jihadists have taken over the country with deadly consequences due to forcing Sharia law, their version, on the people who have not fled.  When the resignation and acceptance is matched by subversion and persistence underground, the Jihadists are furiously vengeful.  Flogging, stoning, amputation -- the penalties go higher as the offenses become more trivial.

The main plot line is a little family barely getting by on the dunes by herding cows and goats.  This is a second marriage (the first husband had died) and deeply loving though we see no sex.  The son herds the seven cattle and does it well.  He loves one cow more than the others.  The whimsically named GRP is carrying a calf and it will be given to him.  But GRP gets into the nets of the fisherman seining out tiny minnows in shallow water and tears some of the nets out.

Emotions are strong.  A confrontation is inevitable though the wife talks her husband into leaving his gun behind, but everything goes tragic.  I’m reading Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”, the chapter called “Compensation for the Death of a Child” in which he describes systems of justice and recovery from catastrophe and how they have developed in cultures from the simplest to the most complex.  This film would be an excellent way to start a discussion.  Evolved ways of working things through might have saved the situation.

When one culture comes in over the top of the other and insists on controlling everything in a way the previous people don’t know, the results are a mix of absurdity, confusion, injustice and a growing underground defiance.  Authority figures from the dominator class are ridiculous and don’t understand how crippling they are even to themselves, as they expand their protocols and justifications in an effort to be convincing and respected.  I don’t have to go to “Timbuktu” to see this -- illustrations are close at hand, both nationally and locally.

This film is far more than a polemic about a simple but deeply historical life.  It allows us to enter a world that is as starkly beautiful as an abstract expressionist painting, where the basics of survival are the very minimum in the dun land and the mud-brick shelters.  One only needs a tent spread low over carpet and a little stove for making tea.  But in such a place, the people are vivid, calmly passionate in their settled lives, reclining together or running, running, running as the children do in their attempts to understand and do the right thing.  The clothing is brilliantly colored and one woman -- who is she?  A shaman, a crazy woman, a whore, an immigrant who is in sympathy?  She goes about laughing with a dark train longer than any bridal gown, a headdress of feathers, and a rooster instead of a flower bouquet.

Here’s some excellent discussion of the film, which includes clips.  It is a film that provokes serious thought so there’s quite a bit to explore via search engines.

I wanted to say a word or two about “Beast of No Nation.” but I wouldn’t call it a review.  I was disappointed precisely because it does NOT have the complexity and insight of “The Wire” or even “Luther,” which is -- after all -- another police procedural based on a charismatic figure, which is an almost obsessive television form.

"The movie is an effective nightmare, and a solid piece of filmmaking, strong enough to make you wish that it could have borne the full weight of the tragedy it set out to depict."   A. O. Scott,·New York Times

"The ambiguity of the plot allows it to tell a more universal story, but the powerful vagueness hurts the film’s ability to do more than straightforwardly depict the brutal life of a child soldier."  David Sims·The Atlantic

I love Idris Elba, but he shrewdly looks after his image.  Of course, he is entitled to do that and he’s doing it well.  (What ever happened to Djimon Hounsou?)  The danger for an actor, the same as for a writer, is that so much energy goes into promotion that there’s none left for the actual product.

We still have the British Empire history obsession with great men and women and the meaning of battles, which “Game of Thrones” both mocks and fulfills.  To force this onto a jungle gang that drafts little boys to do things and have things done to them that are FAR more horrifying that any movie can depict can't hope to be aired except as porn.  (Porn being a label for things we pretend not to approve of, but are secretly eager to see for the sake of the arousal.)

But “Timbuktu” does not fall for that.  The “bad guys” are always defensive and in little self-protective panels and sorties.  How do you suppress football (soccer) if you take their ball and then they just play “air football” which they take so seriously that when a donkey walks through the playing field, they stop the game as though it were real.  The donkey has more power than Sharia law.

The donkey is part of the land as are the people: that’s what indigenous, autochthonous, native, aboriginal are all words meant to describe.  (Maybe this woman is a writer.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that. Timbuktu is free to watch with Amazon Prime.

My take on the shaman woman. She said she was from Port Au Prince, and appeared in Timbuktu from an earthquake. Since Voodoo is a primary religious faith there, I took her as a practitioner, or Queen.