Abderrahmane Sissako and Mehdi AG Mohamed in Timbuktu


A nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Abderrahmane Sissako’s visually dazzling and morally devastating Timbuktu is set in the recent past, yet it couldn’t be more of the moment. As the title tells us, the setting is the ancient sub-Saharan village in Mali, where Islamic fundamentalists took control in 2012 in an attempt to turn back the clock and impose Sharia law. The exotic locale, with its mud huts that resemble giant wasp nests and undulating sand dunes that seem to stretch into infinity, looks like a distant planet. And the modest villagers who’d raised cattle and fished there for generations must have felt like they were being invaded by aliens. The jihadists, wielding machine guns and bullhorn directives (mostly aimed at women, naturally, who are forced to wear gloves and cover their faces), are shown to be thugs and hypocrites. An unmarried couple are buried up to their necks and stoned to death; a woman whose only crime was playing music is sentenced to 40 lashes, during which she defiantly sings through her cries of pain. Sissako, who lives in neighboring Mauritania, wants to show us not only the repressive face of radical Islam but also the culture that it is extinguishing. The most powerful story line in the film revolves around a cattle owner named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) who lives peacefully in a tent with his wife (Toulou Kiki) and 12-year-old daughter (Layla Walet Mohamed). Kidane’s own sense of justice and anger will soon detonate with tragic consequences, but for a moment, as he sits and strums a guitar with his family under the stars, we see the harmony and humanity about to be scattered to the desert winds—a way of life that will be lost to foreigners blinded by their own righteousness. A

  • Movie
  • 97 minutes