“Timbuktu” is a picturesque nightmare, a quiet, beautiful and chilling account of a city under the rule of Islamic jihadists. They briefly seized the ancient city in Mali a couple of years back, but the conflict and events depicted in this fictional tale could be set anywhere across Islamic Africa. Racial strife between Arabs and Africans and arguments over whose interpretation of the Koran are moot when one side of the argument has guns.
The foreigners come armed with AK-47s, piled into Toyota pickups and on the back of motorbikes.
One has a bullhorn.
“Smoking is forbidden,” he announces, in Arabic and local languages. “Music is forbidden!” “Women must wear gloves!” “Women must wear socks!”
The fashion police are literally in charge, and remember, they have guns.
These backward redneck fundamentalists, an Islamic answer to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, instantly push this backward backwater into some fantasy Islamic State past. Sharia law applies, but not the same to everyone. They’re armed hypocrites who change the rules to get the women they want and the world they want to live in.
Because as remote as it is, Timbuktu makes for a perfect crucible for Islamic Arabs to impose their values on Islamic Africans.
Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako (“Life on Earth”) lets his camera stroll through random postcards of life in this place under these conditions — the fishwife who gets into a shouting match over being forced to wear gloves, the Imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) who chastises the militants who stomp into the mosque during prayers.
“You cause harm to Islam and Muslims,” he preaches. “Where is leniency? Where is forgiveness? Where is God in all this?”
The polyglot of languages in Sissako’s film hints at the conflicts raging from Sudan to Nigeria — armed Arabs who don’t speak the local tongue (Tamasheq), forced to use translators in French and English to get their edicts across to the stunned locals.
The central story is that of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a rural cattle farmer whose wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki) is desired by one of the hypocritical jihadists. Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) may ban soccer (kids continue to the play the game, without a ball) and enforce bans on music and smoking, but he’ll sneak off to take a few puffs when he thinks no one is looking.
“Timbuktu” depicts an odd clash of cultures, even without the intra-Islamic squabbling. Barefoot shepherds with cell phones, video-savvy propagandists who administer an ancient decree’s 40 lashes to a single woman who dared be in the same room with men. There’s a langor about the place, and an air of oppression hanging over the locals (most have fled) that does little to prepare you for the moments of violence — shocking, brutal and sudden.
And when it’s over, there’s nothing more to take from the film than the uneasy feeling that what we’ve seen is either intolerant and biased, or a warning. It’s not Islamophobic to fear the spread of this primitive oppression, be it in Syria or Nigeria.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed,Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Cheik A.G. Emakni, Layla Walet Mohamed
Credits: Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, screenplay by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall. A Cohen Media release.
Running time: 1:36