The man with the megaphone walks the alleyways, his mechanical voice echoing off the buildings.
“Cigarettes are forbidden. Music is forbidden.”
In the outskirts men with automatic weapons blast apart local fetishes, their clay bodies bursting over the sand.
“Women must wear socks and gloves.”
Farther out a crowd gathers to watch young men play soccer without a ball. With each imagined goal, riotous cheers explode.
“For those who speak Bambara…”
And in this new language, the man with the megaphone continues his duties. All of the inhabitants of Timbuktu must learn the old laws, the commandments of sharia, now that the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine has conquered them. Part fable, part damning exposé, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu regards a world of tyranny with an eye both sympathetic and resigned.
Sissako frames his film as a series of vignettes—some of the populace, some of the Jihadists themselves—surrounding a central story concerning a local herdsman put on trial for murdering a fisherman. While the small vignettes paint a very black-and-white portrait of life under occupation with the Jihadists as hypocritical, brutal, and bizarrely bureaucratic tyrants and the townspeople as preyed-upon victims, this central story remarkably refuses to take sides. On the one hand, the Jihadists are cruel for executing the herdsman. But on the other, the herdsman deliberately went to his confrontation with the fisherman with a gun and a willingness to “defend himself.” The irony: in the end, a secular government probably would have given the herdsman the same punishment as the Jihadists.
Sissako’s treatment of Islam rejects attempts to reduce the faith to an entity either inherently corrupt or inherently righteous. Yes, the Jihadists use the Quran as a tool to subjugate the masses (including one sickening scene where a group of bride-kidnappers justify a recent abduction as somehow being “approved by the Prophet”). But their violent interpretation of Islam doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A local imam risks his life by chastising the Jihadists and refusing them entry into a mosque while armed. Despite bans on music, in the night there are still those who risk their well-being by singing praises to Allah and His Prophet.
Above all Timbuktu is achingly human. See the scene where the woman sentenced to 80 lashes for singing in public continues her song in the midst of her punishment. See the scene where elder Jihadists coach and encourage a young soldier while he tries to make a recruitment video. See the scene where the herdsman, with tears in his eyes, tells his judge that he fears not his proscribed death, but the absence of his only daughter’s face. Sissako’s steady pacing lulls us into a sense of familiarity with his characters while his meticulously composed cinematography emphasizes the alienness of their world to Western audiences. These stories have a sense of the mythical to them: they have happened before and will happen again. But the important thing is that they are happening now, today, all over the world where the Jihadists’ Black Standard flies.