Title: Timbuktu (2014)
The film is set during the 8-month occupation of Timbuktu, Mali by Ansar Dine, a militant Islamic movement associated with ISIL. They impose sharia, an extremely strict set of laws that includes the banning of music, singing and sports, forcing women to completely cover their bodies, and levying heavy punishments like lashings and stonings for violations.
The local population, unassuming shepherds, fishers, farmers and shopkeepers, who’ve never needed a standing army and practice Islam as a private, inward-directed faith, are at first merely bemused and annoyed by the newly-arrived outsiders. But their policies, pitilessly, disproportionately and often hypocritically applied, soon turn the once-vibrant region into a fearful and despotic hellhole. The main character, Kidane, is a leisurely but very loving husband and father, who grazes eight cows in the grass-patched dunes outside the city. When “GPS,” the pride of his herd, is killed by an angry neighbor, Kidane gets caught up in the senseless ‘justice’ of Ansar Dine’s reign.
Veteran helmer Abderrahmane Sissako has shown a welcome inclination to tackle contemporary political topics, but what makes Timbuktu work is that it has a great deal more grace and moderation than we’re used to from political pieces and social commentaries. It functions on a much smaller and more intimate scale. The “heroes” of the story are members of a quiet unambitious family so inconsequential that the occupiers are barely aware of their existence until circumstances make them just conspicuous enough to merit a quick, callous, informal trial. The soldiers of ISIL, on the other hand, aren’t depicted here as an army or terrorist organization so much as a small-time gang; self-interested men who thrive on seeing their own will imposed on those around them, something only possible because they happen to have guns. They shroud themselves with a religion they little understand, warping it to their short-term, petty desires while disregarding the articulate common sense of the local imam.
Sissako’s style has intermittently flirted with European slow cinema and he’s developed an eye for breathtaking telephoto scenes that increasingly merit being held for a minute or more as we fully digest. Perhaps the best is a long shot of two men separating after a struggle in the middle of a shallow lake, lurching to land, their expressions far too remote to read, but in the full awareness that their lives are ending. Another hauntingly beautiful scene weaves around a soccer match taking place with an imagined ball, the real one having been confiscated as un-Islamic.
Timbuktu also has Sissako’s best script to date, balancing the slacker ennui and mute acceptance of his Waiting for Happiness and the in-your-face polemics and foregrounded debate of his last feature, Bamako, in which an African village literally puts the IMF on trial.