Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is social commentary subtly woven into a beautifully-painted, lush-yet-measured allegory. At times harkening to an early Clint Eastwood western, this is a polemics-free look on film at life under conservative Islam.
Timbuktu, recently nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category and the first film from Mauritania to earn that honor, takes place in Mali. Occupied by Islamic fundamentalists (they call themselves jihadists), the already-pious Muslim community living there is plunged into a new, rigid world order thoroughly unfamiliar to them.
The opening scene of machine guns destroying ancient African relics is understated. The scene of a woman singing while she is being lashed for music-making (one of the many forbidden activities under the new regime) is equally so. Children playing soccer with a ghost ball (because soccer, too, is forbidden) is yet another haunting rendering of quiet resistance even in the face of the stripping of all that is sensory.
The protagonist in the film is cattle herder Kidane who lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, his daughter Toya, and Issan, their twelve-year-old shepherd. When one of Kidane’s cows is killed by Amadou, the fisherman, for its encroaching into his nets, Kidane is entangled in a life-or-death net of his own. Kidane’s character also shines a light on the lives of desert nomads like him—people increasingly buffeted by the crashing waves of whatever political tides reign in the region. All of his neighbors have left; living in the desert offers Kidane’s family a certain degree of freedom but also puts him in tremendous peril, under a rule determined to erase his culture, even though many of the Islamist recruits are his own people.
In town, the people suffer, powerless, under the regime imposed by the jihadists. Laughter, music, soccer, cigarettes, and not wearing gloves while in public for women, are just a few of the verboten things. Every day, the religious police patrol the city and pass violent sentences on anyone daring to break the laws. What is remarkable about Timbuktu is the way that the people respond to this draconian state: for example, a woman asked to wear gloves while selling fish simply explains to the militants that it is not practical for her to wear gloves while doing her work. There are no histrionics here, just quiet dignity as everyone seems to be equal parts confused and resigned to what has happened to this place they used to call home.
The absurdity of the ideology is made apparent without much fanfare. When a mother asks what justification there is for one of the jihadists marrying her daughter without the consent of her parents, the courts tell her that the man in question is, “pious and according to Sharia, if a man is pious, he should be given a bride.” One can’t help but see that even the enforcers of this state of terror seem to have no rhyme or reason for their behavior.
Timbuktu Timbuktu presents the jihadist occupation in a surprisingly subdued way, with little reliance on emotionality from any of its characters, yet it is not devoid of emotional pull. The scenes are carefully composed, with a desert blues cadence to them. The line between singing and howling/wailing in pain is blurry. Perhaps its greatest strength is how it renders the disruption of living under such turmoil seem so ordinary—something superimposed on the people there like a foreign cloak on the already pious fabric of their society.