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When Islamists Impose Their Will In 'Timbuktu,' One Family Resists

The word "Timbuktu" is slang in the West for East of Nowhere, but in the film Timbuktu, this city in Mali on the edge of the Sahara is an epicenter, a volatile crossroads for several distinct cultures. There are African women in radiant colors, white-garbed Muslim men in mosques, fishermen who live along the river and nomadic herders who pitch their tents on dunes. And then there are the most recent arrivals: an al-Qaida-affiliated group called Ansar Dine that in 2012 took over Timbuktu and announced the enforcement of Sharia, or Islamic law.

That's the film in a nutshell: Sharia meets multiculturalism.

It's Kidane's pride and not, suprisingly, Islamists enforcing Sharia that draws the film's first blood — the point being oppressed men tend to turn their rage on one another instead of their oppressors.

A remarkable thing about Timbuktu is that it's often on the verge of being a comedy. It's in five languages: French, a legacy of 20th-century colonialism; Arabic; Bambara, an African language; Songhay, a group of dialects heard around the Niger River; and, finally, English, though that's used in desperation when one man can't make sense of another man's Arabic. An Islamist judge must interrogate a man in Arabic and wait impatiently as his words are translated into French for the offender and Bambara for the victim's family — funny even if the outcome is an execution.

You have to laugh when an eccentric diva in resplendent colors sashays down the street and blocks a convoy of gun-toting jihadis, her arms spread wide as if casting a spell, while the young men clearly think, "What the hell do we do now?" It's amusing to watch jihadis stumble over rooftops looking for the source of forbidden music — but the lashings that follow strangle the laugh in your throat. Moderate Muslims, meanwhile, look on in disapproval. This is not their Islam.

Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako grew up in nearby Mauritania, where the film was actually shot, and reportedly decided to make Timbuktu following news of a Mali couple buried to their necks and stoned to death for having children without being married. That event is in the film, but those two aren't the protagonists — if they were, I think, this would be too conventional a melodrama.

The protagonists are Kidane, played by Ibrahim Ahmed, and his wife, Satima, played by Toulou Kiki, who live in a tent on a dune outside the city with their daughter and a boy orphaned by war, raising cows. Their neighbors either fled or were killed when the Ansar Dine arrived, but Kidane won't budge. Under a desert moon, he strums his guitar, cuddles his wife and arrogantly maintains the danger will pass. He's tired of running away and being humiliated.

It's Kidane's pride and not, surprisingly, Islamists enforcing Sharia that draws the film's first blood — the point being that oppressed men tend to turn their rage on one another instead of their oppressors. Timbuktu's most shattering image is a wide, distant shot of one man stumbling and splashing across the shallow river while a second, mortally wounded, drags himself in the opposite direction toward a dock — falling, lurching forward, falling again, the water turning red. It's one of the most horrifying depictions of the aftermath of violence I've seen.

So there it is: a film that's a mix of tones, of satire and melodrama and tragedy, that somehow jells. The climax is confusingly staged and the finale — which takes a hairpin turn into metaphor — abrupt, but by then the movie has so much momentum it doesn't hurt too much. If Timbuktu has a "takeaway," it's that it's deeply humanistic and so, in this context, political: that there's no such thing as monolithic Muslim culture, and that the threat of Sharia is less to Westerners than to people in countries like Mali — and, at this moment, Iraq and Syria. Watching the film, I was moved by the power of cinema to expose the inhumanity of ideology, to blow its pose of righteousness to what I'd once have called Timbuktu.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.