Arts movie review

Timbuktu: Life under terrorism

France’s Best Picture winner is an important film



Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

Starring Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki

Rated PG-13

Now playing at the Kendall Square Cinema

ISIS and the radicalization of Islam should be deplored. We know this. But what are the crimes? Facile answers include the beheadings and mass killings that have the immediate shock value needed to attract media attention. (Our world is one of noise, to echo Polish director Pavel Pawlikowski at the Oscars.) The injustices perpetrated against everyday Muslims living under jihadist militants are both more pervasive and more insidious: abrogations of freedoms not only to life, but to liberty, personal and cultural. Attacks on not only the body, but the soul.

These are the crimes laid bare in Timbuktu, a slice-of-life film about daily existence under jihadist rule in the ancient title city. Directed by acclaimed North African director Abderrahmane Sissako, it won Best Picture and Best Director this year at the Cesars, the French Oscars.

The central character of the film, if there is one, is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), the patriarch of one of the few Bedouin families who have chosen not to leave their home. The varied subjugations of the people of Timbuktu, which constitute the bulk of the film, serve to inform Kidane’s motivations when he assaults a fisherman (the exact details of which, I’ve left out).

A man is told to roll up his pants to his ankles though the material does not roll up: he removes his pants. A female fishmonger is told to wear gloves to hide her hands though she refuses to do so while handling fish: she asks to be taken away instead. Football is forbidden, so the children play heedlessly without a ball, until a soldier stops them.

Things get worse. A woman is forced into marriage. Young men and women are lashed for singing and playing music in their homes. Adulterers are stoned.

What distinguishes the film is its examination of what happens when the oppression becomes banal: the decision to surrender, to flee, or to fight is wordless and automatic, fate come as it may. Subsequent punishment is received without surprise, sentiment, or objection.

Sissako’s images of the desert, beautiful but barren panoramas, only underscore what its inhabitants know to be a foregone conclusion: there is no refuge here.

While the film is a story of fiction, Timbuktu was, in fact, overrun with jihadists not two years ago. The film is based largely on events there and elsewhere in the Arab World. (The city has since been liberated with the aid of French forces.)

In the Middle Ages, Timbuktu’s riches were legendary; the city was the center of culture and commerce in West Africa. World history textbooks, in spite of all their relative ignorance of Africa, regularly include in bold the name of the emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, who is said to have distributed thousands of pounds of gold on his pilgrimage to Mecca and was perhaps the richest man to have ever lived.

The Timbuktu of today — the one in the film — is a desert town, economically impoverished yet lush with the secular and artistic traditions of the Islamic Golden Age. Its geographic distance from the Middle East (and its lack of oil) has insulated it from much of the region’s ideological extremism and unrest.

The film bears witness to all Muslims who suffer under religious extremism, but the cultural wealth and liberalism of Timbuktu satisfies those (few, I hope) who equate all Islam with radicalism Such modernism, by itself, informs both the wise, quiet defiance of the people, and the humanity of the jihadists.

Yes, the humanity of the jihadists.

The same soldiers who confiscate a football don’t speak to each other about anything but the sport. The soldier who finds musicians hears that they’re singing praises to Allah, and questions his superiors about arresting them. Another spellbinds the town gypsy with his dancing. One of their leaders smokes.

None of the soldiers are psychopaths. Evil has become banal in their lives, too.

The sadness of the resignation of the film’s characters is only exacerbated by their beauty: their clothing, their songs, the moments of affection between family members, particularly between Kidane and his daughter. The joy of their previous lives seems tangible, until it is not.

That, Sissako says, is when they win. Terrorism is a war of attrition.