Timbuktu is an extraordinary film, depicting and satirizing the brutal hypocrisy and self-contradictions of the Islamic fundamentalists who occupied the ancient Saharan city in Mali in 2012. These jihadis, many of them from Libya and unable to speak the local language, banned music, soccer and smoking, and demanded women wear gloves and not gather in the streets. But even as their religious police patrolled the streets seeking out offenders, one of their leaders sneaks a cigarette in the desert, and some of the young jihadis are seen arguing about the merits of the French national soccer team.
Director Abderrahmane Sissako skillfully humanizes these occupiers, even as he unflinchingly shows the inhumanity of their actions – stoning to death a man and a woman buried up to the neck for the crime of adultery, and whipping a woman for singing in the privacy of her home. Much of the assault on the local Timbuktu population by the jihadis is focused on the women, and Sissako deftly shows how these ill-educated men struggle with their own sexual frustrations even as they lecture women about showing their hair. But the women are no push-overs – one woman in the market who is selling fish ridicules the jihadi police who tell her to put on gloves while she is handling the fish – she stretches out her hands and dares them to cut her hands off. Boys who have been told they cannot play soccer carry out a wonderful pantomime on the soccer field, running and passing an imaginary ball back and forwards, as the watchful jihadis drive through on their motorbikes, looking but failing to find a real ball.
Against this backdrop of communal madness Sissako introduces the story of the Tuareg cattle herder, Kidane, who confronts a fisherman for killing one of his cows. In one remarkable wide shot as the sun goes down over the river, Kidane accidentally discharges his gun which kills the fisherman, and then he splashes out of the far side of the river as the fisherman’s body slowly subsides into the water – never was manslaughter so movingly filmed. Kidane then faces the consequences of this action at the hands of the merciless jihadis. The mesmerizing cinematography and the beautiful music only further emphasize the ugly futility of the jihadis “purifiying” project, as they shoot at statuary with their automatic rifles and try to run down gazelles in the desert in their pick-up trucks. [Ultimately these jihadis were chased out of Timbuktu by the intervention of French troops after 10 months.]
After the screening Tunisian TV-journalist Ramzi Malouki, who has known Abderrahmane Sissako for some time, said “This is a tragic film – we see the stoning and the lashes – but still the director has put poetry into the film… he wanted to show the daily life in Timbuktu from everyone’s perspective.” By using satire instead of crude demonization, Sissako’s film is a devastating condemnation of the Islamic extremists who tried to destroy his native culture, and by extension of extremists everywhere, whose dogma is incompatible with civilized life.