Alongside Citizenfour, Timbuktu might be the most urgently topical film of the year, but unlike Citizenfour, Timbuktu is not a documentary. This narrative film, the latest by Malian auteur Abderrahmane Sissako, was inspired by a 2012 entry in a local Malian newspaper about a couple being stoned to death for having children out of wedlock. Sissako’s interlocking stories of Timbuktu residents bring texture to tragically frequent headlines chronicling the rise and bloody tactics of foreign jihadists on the African continent. (Without being immune to them: the shoot was relocated to Mauritania in September 2013 due to violence in Mali).
The chronicle of daily life under Sharia law includes a cast of characters from the diverse ethnic groups that live side by side in Timbuktu. One main narrative thread follows a Tuareg family of herders living in the desert. When a prized cow (named “GPS”) strays and gets tangled in local fishermen’s nets, the altercation lands the herder in a Sharia court run by foreigners. These residents’ world has been taken out of their hands and knocked off of its orbit in the name of a centuries-old dogma. There’s also the local imam—another voice of Islam—who reprimands the jihadists for wearing shoes and carrying weapons in the mosque. And there are the jihadists themselves; merciless and cruel as they are, we also see them struggling to get cell phone service, debating the merits of Zinedine Zidane, and even sneaking a forbidden cigarette. These banal, tragicomic moments bolster the film’s powerful condemnation of the jihadist occupation, making its perpetuators real and human.
Timbuktu is a film of contrasts. Visually, the terror inflicted to suppress laughter, music, soccer, smoking, and many other things is carried out by armed men whose Land Rovers stand out against expansive, color-drenched sand dunes, and whose megaphones disrupt cool, intimate interiors. The female characters in particular act as a collective foil to the jihadists. For some, elaborate and colorful dress are anathema to the men who’d see them covered; for others, small acts of resistance are a testament to immense courage in the face of those who’d see them killed. The poignant symbolism culminates with a scene in which a young woman is beaten after being caught making music in a friend’s home. With each strike of the whip she continues to sing (in a visceral performance that might be compared to 12 Years a Slave). Music, a centuries-old tradition in Mali, faces off against fanaticism in the 21st century.
At a screening at the New York Film Festival, Sissako put his faith in women (in his film and in reality) as those most able to confront the moral bankruptcy of militant jihadism. With this impactful film, he’s done his part in telling a cautionary tale.