Last week I watched the film Timbuktu at the Rio Cinema, Dalston; the following evening I saw the play An Audience with Jimmy Savile at the Park Theatre in North London.
Timbuktu is a French film set in the legendary ‘middle of nowhere’ city in Mali, but this film puts it right in the middle of a sad and bloody map. It’s on a limited release, so I urge anyone to go and see it while they can. It’s a genuine five stars film, which I expect will resonate for many years to come.
The tragic scenes of an Islamist takeover and how it affects ordinary lives are told with beautiful, nuanced characterisation and dialogue and startling cinematography and imagery, with numerous memorable scenes. A football match played without a football; a simple song that we know is about to become a violent end; a mentally disturbed lady, the only one left alone by the Islamist police, with her unveiled face, colourful dress, its black fringes dragging in the dust. Above all, the images which bookend the film, of first an antelope then a child being hunted, by the same people and in the same way.
There was even a scene with a new recruit filming a martyrdom video, criticised by the man behind the camera for sounding too much like the rap fan he once was. Sad shades of the front page photo of the grinning ex-rapper and football fan who murdered so many on a Tunisian beach just a few days ago.
The film has received pretty much unanimous approval, while the response to An Audience with Jimmy Savile has been more mixed (although again, I thought it first class). Too close to home? Too indelicate a subject? Too many recently upset sensibilities? Some have criticised the structure of the play – part like a genuine example of those “Audience with” shows, part the search of one of his victims for recognition, redemption and finally confrontation, but I thought it worked just fine.
It’s certainly not down to the performance of Alistair McGowan, who is superb in his depiction of Savile, capturing every mannerism as brilliantly as you would expect from a great impressionist. If I had a quibble it was that Savile came over, not so much Jekyll and Hyde (nice but weird on camera, monstrous in his behaviour off it, and when threatened) but as Hyde and Hyde light. It may be down to McGowan’s imposing height and dark looks, but onstage he really didn’t seem that pleasant, even when he was supposedly being so. During his lifetime, most people seemed to view Savile as odd rather than creepy. But perhaps there’s an element of hindsight in that.
Hindsight makes visionaries of us all, of course.
What, I wonder, do those who live with the Islamists in places like Timbuktu think? If the film is accurate, there was certainly a mixed response among inhabitants. Even the jihadis themselves are shown to have failings (judged by their own terms), perhaps even doubts.
Some would have welcomed the Islamists, others resisted. We know from other places and other conflicts that some of those doing the welcoming would soon have turned to active opposition. Many inhabitants would no doubt simply have ignored them as much as possible, whether that involved tacit or grudging acceptance.
How do we deal with the monsters among us? Do we even recognise them? Do we invite them in – whether to take over our city or to provide entertainment via our living room TVs? Do the millions Savile raised for charity, or the temporary order from chaos that the Islamists can bring, really suffice to mask greater horrors?
Whether we welcome them, revere them, accept them, are fooled by them, doubt but follow them, how many, at the time, recognise the monsters among us for what they really are?
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