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Part travelogue, part political statement, part coming-of-age drama —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, Timbuktu shows what it’s like to live under the rule of fundamentalist thugs.

The occupation of Timbuktu, in the northern African country of Mali, has ended. But people in Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria (to name a few) still face this sort of repression.

The New Boss

"Islamic police" make life miserable for citizens of Timbuktu
“Islamic police” make life miserable for citizens of Timbuktu

There is a new sheriff in town — several, actually, although the leader seems to be Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) who is learning to drive. He and the other self-proclaimed “Islamic Police” wear turbans that cover their entire faces. They carry automatic weapons. They roam the town enforcing their new rules.

Women must wear gloves and socks at the market. Nobody may sing. Young people of opposite sexes may not congregate together. Even football is banned. Anything haram — or Western — is forbidden. Beatings and the death penalty will be applied liberally.

A nomadic family — Kidane, his wife Satima, and their daughter Toya (Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, and Layla Walet Mohamed) — live on the outskirts of Timbuktu, away from the new thugs who are making life miserable for the citizens. Kidane has hired a boy to drive his cattle, and one day the boy allows the cattle wander into some fishing nets. The angry fisherman shoots the tangled cow.

Kidane hears half the story and goes out to confront the fisherman, armed with a pistol. Thus begins Kidane’s encounter with the new extremist justice system.


Kidane’s story might only take a few minutes of screen time. Writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako (Kessen Tall cowrote the screenplay) interleaves many stories of people in town whose lives are affected by the Islamic police.

A group of men who play football have their ball taken away by the police, and the owner is sentenced to lashing. A woman who sells fish refuses to wear gloves at the market, because they would make her job impossible. Only the oldest cleric at the local mosque has the nerve to lecture the new “Islamic police” on their thuggish interpretation of Koranic law.

An immigrant from Haiti (Fatoumata Diawara) is allowed to flout some of the new laws. She walks without a headscarf and practices some sort of voodoo. It seems the “Islamic police” don’t quite know what to make of her, and maybe fear her power, and so they allow her to live her life.

Medium and Message

In Timbuktu, the desert photography is rich and striking. At the film’s apex, Sissako locks the camera down on a tripod, mounted high and far away, looking down on two figures on the opposite side of a little pond.

The actors in Timbuktu are mostly Africans whom you won’t have seen in other films. My favorite performance is Toulou Kiki as the nomadic wife. She shows resolve in the face of the new “Islamic police” — not defiance — in her wisdom she knows they don’t deserve “defiance” but rather simple refusal.

What makes the strongest impression is the slate of bad things that happen when a militant religious group gains power over everyday people.

Nobody is likely to defend self-appointed “Islamic Police,” and making a movie condemning them seems a bit obvious. But the illustration of the little atrocities, the day-to-day repression, brings it home that the worst of it is not the beheadings of journalists, but rather the soul-crushing mundane acts of repression that make life so miserable.

Blu-ray Extras

The Cohen Media Blu-ray disc includes one extra feature, a Q&A session with the director, filmed at the New York Film Festival. The session runs a bit longer than half an hour, enough time for maybe half a dozen questions.

Most of the questions were worth asking. For example, about the casting, Mali doesn’t have an acting tradition so most roles (but not all) were filled by untrained nonprofessionals. Each actor spoke his or her own language. And Sissako confirms that the grand gestures of destruction (such as the destruction of libraries) were less important to him than showing the everyday repression and defiance.

The format of the Q&A was disappointing at first. The question is asked in English. We watch the translator explain the question to Sissako, we hear his answer in French, and then we wait for the live translation. Surely on a disc we could have been spared some of the redundancy by the use of subtitles and editing. But Sissako is a smart enough guy and the questions are intelligent enough that I decided I didn’t really mind after all.