A Review of Timbuktu, Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
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Timbuktu, one of the current Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, is a study in religious extremism. A story about Muslims, the film—the first ever nominated from Mauritania—is a quietly persuasive work about the destructive effects of jihadism. The story’s context is Muslim culture, but application can be made to other forms of strict, letter-of-the-law obedience that delight in pointing out the sins of others while overlooking the sin within.
Kidane, a shepherd, lives with his wife, Satima, and his daughter near Timbuktu, but his peaceful existence is disrupted by the Islamic religious extremists that have taken over the region. One of them, Abdelkerim, has started showing up when Kidane isn’t around, harassing Satima. He and others are in the business of getting the word out about the imposition of strict tenets of Islamic law in the region. Women must wear socks. No music is permitted. Soccer is no longer allowed. Neither is smoking.
Kidane tries to steer clear of confrontation, but when one of his cows is slaughtered, Kidane confronts the offender, leading to an act of violence with severe consequences.
The strength of Timbuktu is its unflinching look at the conflict between jihadists and other Muslims trying to live together. There is no Western influence to “enlighten” them toward a more moderate faith that Westerners might find palatable, but that doesn’t mean Western viewers won’t have a rooting interest for those characters who push back against the jihadis. The film, co-written by director Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall, pits the hard-liners against Muslims who live out their faith more quietly, but with no less conviction. Discussions between people representing both factions are stimulating, even though, from a Christian perspective, neither understands God fully.
Don’t be surprised to feel a welling anger when Timbuktu shows the jihadists carry out their version of justice, but don’t let that dissuade you from recommending this powerful film to others. The sight of such horrific outcomes can be added to recent videos that show the viciousness of these adherents to extreme Islamic ideology. In an age of carefully worded political statements responding to the latest unimaginable act of brutality by Islamists, Sissako’s artistry speaks clearly and unequivocally about a growing problem. In doing so, it shows what art, at its best, can achieve.