director: Abderrahmane Sissako
I grew up hearing the term "Timbuktu" used as a synonym for "far away in the middle of nowhere." I don't think I realized it was a real place until I was a teenager. In reality, Timbuktu is a beautiful place in Mali, Africa, where people live among gently sculpted sand dunes, under a blue desert sky.
The very first shot of the film shows a gazelle running gracefully, a jeep full of jihadists with AK-47s in pursuit. One of the men comments that they should stop shooting and just let the animal run and tire itself out so they can catch it. Next, we see the men using traditional local statues for target practice. The statues start out whole and dignified, but after a few rounds, are sadly just fragments of their former beautiful selves: they are now missing breasts, arms, heads. Both scenes are a subtle but powerful setup for the film's depiction of the physical and psychological destruction the jihadists have wrought on the local community.
Our sympathies are immediately with the locals. The jihadists are a heavily armed, dour bunch from elsewhere, and in fact do not speak either the local languages
or French, the area's literal lingua franca. Many of the film's conversations are done through translators. We get the impression that for a long time before the invasion, the locals were peacefully minding their own business, only to have their lives turned upside down by the fundamentalists, who have now forbidden things like smoking, singing, and soccer. When the jihadists enter the local mosque, the imam tells them that they
are not really acting in the name of Allah, or Islam for that matter, and that they should leave.
Ignoring the imam and local custom, the jihadists exhort the village women to veil themselves and
wear gloves. In one memorable early scene, a market woman shouts at the
jihadists in exasperation that she's a fishmonger, so how on earth is
she supposed to clean fish while wearing gloves? She pulls a filleting knife out of her
pocket and tells them that they'd better cut her hands off,
because she's not going to wear gloves. Besides, she says, when her hands are cut off, they won't be able to force her to wear gloves anyway.
Gradually, we are introduced to more and more villagers who run afoul of the fundamentalists: the young couple who steal romantic moments with each other; the family who insists on continuing to play their musical instruments and sing; the mother who does not want to marry off her daughter to an imperious stranger. But the characters we get to know best are a small Bedouin family--Satima, the mother, Kidane, the father, and Toya, their twelve year old daughter--and Isaan, the local orphan boy who looks after their tiny herd of cows. The four of them live peacefully among the dunes in tents, happy together but slightly concerned about the steady exodus of their neighbours. Satima notes that they are the last ones left in their camp. Kidane says he wants to stay put; after all, where would they go? But he admits he is worried too. We, the audience, are also worried as we watch the family eventually come under the scrutiny of the jihadists.
Unlike the jihadists, the filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, does not see things in black and white. Everyone is portrayed with compassion and dignity. We see one of the senior jihadists, Abdelkarim, as he privately struggles with the conflict between his fundamentalist principles and the stubborn resistance of the locals. He isn't very good at driving in the desert, so he has a driver, Omar, who tries to teach him the ways of Toyota trucks. "You don't know everything," Omar points out to him, calmly, as he stalls the truck once again. When they approach Satima, washing her hair outside the tent, Abdelkarim tells her to cover her head; she tells him calmly that if what he sees offends him, it is his duty not to look. He pauses, then walks back to the truck and drives away.
Wisely, the film isn't unrelentingly dark; there are moments of surprising levity and joy. Though soccer is forbidden, the locals find a way to defy the rule without breaking the letter of the law. The scene is beautifully shot and is a testament to both the beauty of the landscape and the skill of the cinematographer, Sofiane El Fani. Other beautifully shot scenes feature Zabou (Kettly Noel), the wonderfully strange village witch, who prowls around the village in her gorgeously eccentric colourful dresses, practicing rituals with chickens and calling the jihadists "assholes." They leave her alone, for reasons unknown. The soundscape of the movie is also very well done: the family of musicians makes beautiful melodies that float out into the night; during one tense scene all we can hear are the snorts and moans of the herd of camels; the sounds of corporal and capital punishment echo painfully after the scenes are finished.
Eventually, despite the resistance of the locals, the jihadists gain more and more of a foothold in the village and there is more violence. There are lashes; there is forced marriage; there is a brutal stoning. The Bedouin family is put in peril.
By the end, we are back to the image of the gazelle. Is it tired out yet? It's still running, but we don't know for how much longer.