Director Abderrahmane Sissako was set to shoot his eponymous film in Timbuktu, a beautiful city composed of sandy buildings, poised on the southern edge of the Saharan desert. In a terrible irony, the very conflict the film sets to depict forced the production into neighbouring Mauritania: an explosive device was set off by a suicide bomber in a nearby airport’s check-point. Similar ironies are peppered throughout Timbuktu, a humane and staggering denunciation of religious fundamentalism and violence.
Timbuktu is an elegant mélange of several stories, following characters striving to manage life following the take-over of the city by Jihadist group Ansar Dine. The film first observes several leaders of the faction, who while carrying weapons wherever they go, remain relatively mild-mannered and polite for the first half of the feature. These scenes are surreal, and at times also comical. A woman argues with the group for requiring her to wear gloves while selling fish at the market; the imam of the local mosque asks its leaders to leave when they disturb prayers; and a man is arrested in the streets, and asked to roll his wide, flowing trousers up to mid-calf. The threat of physical violence is brought up, but never shown or suggested.
Meanwhile, in the desert lives a small family, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), who herd cows and goats, and have a seemingly idyllic life. Yet, Kiki shows Satima worried by events in the neighbouring city, and proudly resistant when Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) one of its leaders, who is visibly taken with her, comes to visit when her husband is away. When a local fisherman takes down one of their cattle, Kidane in turn accidentally kills him, provoking a conflagration with the local militia.
Things become gradually darker. Throughout Kidane’s trial and questioning, the occupiers remain calm, but insist on the harsh punishment required under their version of sharia law. Meanwhile in town, the openly defiant residents receive lashes for their breaches of the new rules; some suffer even worse for adultery. Women are forced into marriages with the warriors. In an extraordinary scene, a group plays football, now banned, without a ball, kicking air back and forth and between goalposts. Throughout, Sissako parallels the personal tragedy of Kidane and the astonishing love binding his family together.
Timbuktu’s brilliance emerges from its many nuances. The militant group’s younger recruits happily discuss European football, although playing it is forbidden, and some of its leaders sneak off into the desert to smoke (another banned activity). A mad woman, who parades the streets of the city in colourful clothes unveiled, is tolerated. One of the film’s best scenes is a wacky exchange between an old and a new member of the faction, as they attempt to make a propaganda video. The senior man gives exacting directorial advice, showing how to convincingly portray a conversion to their beliefs. Finally, the militant group as a whole is lost among the multiplicity of languages spoken across the city, relying on passer-bys and each other to communicate, sometimes requiring two degrees of translation.
Sissako shot Timbuktu in a backdrop of gorgeous scenery, and the film’s photography is staggering. He also accompanies the story with mellow music, giving the feature an oddly relaxed feel, given its subject matter. Unusually for a story about conflict, the tone is not tense, only thoughtful. Audiences are asked to set aside concern about the inevitable fate of the main characters, and instead reflect on where humanity lurks in the oppressors and oppressed.