What is Timbuktu to me and you? The African city, associated in colonial lore with mythic wealth and mystery, used for rhymes in the musical Oliver! or Dr. Seuss, is for most Westerners little more than a metaphor for a remote place.
The actual place, an impoverished town of about 54,000 in the centre of the hump of West Africa, was once a centre of Islamic learning that is still known for its heritage sites. In 2012, Islamic jihadi groups, including ethnic Tuaregs from Moammar Gadhafi's defeated army, overran northern Mali, attempting to impose strict sharia laws on the local populace.
Very little of this background is included in Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu, a film that deliberately expresses its outrage with religious oppression, offering moments of humour and, at times, startling beauty. This is the third feature from Sissako, an acclaimed 53-year-old director who was born in Mauritania, raised in Mali and who, for more than 20 years, has called France his home. While his style has elements of magic realism, Sissako's indignation with pious authority is classically French.
When we first see the jihadis coming to town, they're acting more as if they're cowboys than holy men, driving across the sand dunes, shooting guns at a terrified gazelle, chasing the animal to exhaustion for their entertainment. Later we see them using traditional statues for target practice, blasting away faces and bodies. Another scene shows a Western hostage being handed his glasses and daily medication, keeping him alive for who-knows-what eventual purpose.
In a roundelay of scenes, we witness the everyday practice of a militant religious occupation. An incredulous female fishmonger is instructed to cover her hands. A local imam challenges the rights of the men to enter his mosque wearing shoes and carrying rifles, but is assured that the interlopers are the guardians of the faith. A female musician (singer Fatoumata Diawara) is sentenced to kneel and receive 40 lashes, but as the rope whip strikes her, she continues to sing unrepentantly through her tears.
The central story follows a local cattle-owner, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives with his wife and beloved 12-year-old daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), in a traditional tent. When Kidane's favourite cow, the ill-named GPS, wanders into a local fisherman's net, a fatal fight between neighbours ensues. The resigned Kidane ends up on trial and trusts his fate to Allah, who may not be the same god invoked by his persecutors.
The jihadis are not simple villains; they range from greenhorns to hardened ideologues. Abdelkerim, the local corporal, is more buffoon than villain, struggling with language differences, looking longingly at a local woman. He condemns tobacco use but sneaks cigarettes behind sand dunes, shoots the breeze about soccer with his buddies but orders an end to all sports through his megaphone. (In one beautifully balletic scene, a group of local boys play a game without a ball, racing up and down the pitch miming passes, checks and goals.)
The blend of horror and absurdity is embodied in the character of a Haitian woman (Kettly Noël), a refugee from the 2010 earthquake, a voodoo priestess who wears long flowing clothes and carries a pet rooster under her arm. In one scene, she casts a spell on Abdelkerim with a small cloth bracelet that causes him to go into a tai-chi chicken dance; the dance is intercut with glimpses of a young couple, buried up to their necks, as they are stoned to death for adultery.
More than anything, Timbuktu is a beautiful film, shot in long, beautifully composed takes by cinematographer Sofiane El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Colour). The world of the reddish desert, the limestone houses and the people's flowing clothes, suggest a harmony with nature that is utterly at odds with the foreign fundamentalists with their confusion of accents and loud technology. Sissako's point, while never heavy-handed, is hard to miss: Traditional Muslims are among the world's biggest victims of Islamic militarism.