The human face of evil
We are inundated by news of the atrocities of ISIS and other jihadist groups, and many Americans live in an often misguided fear of Muslims. We tend to view these Islamic militants as monsters.
Timbuktu is that rare film that is both disturbing and inspiring.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s outstanding film Timbuktu paints a different portrait by showing the complex humanity of his characters.
This French-Mauritanian film, which originally came out in 2014 but only came to the United States this year, takes its name from the cosmopolitan city in Mali that draws people from many places and where many languages are spoken. It takes place during an occupation of the city by Islamists bearing a jihadist black flag.
The film opens with a group of jihadists chasing a small antelope across the desert in a land rover, shooting their guns to scare it into submission. This becomes one of many symbols for the reality many people find themselves in.
Soon, in the village, we witness people’s quiet resistance to these thugs, who use a loudspeaker to announce silly laws: Women must wear socks. No music is allowed. Most of the resistance comes from women. A woman selling fish in the marketplace refuses to wear gloves, pointing out how ridiculous such a rule is. “Go ahead, cut off my hands now,” she tells them. They back away.
Another woman, who has moved to Timbuktu from Haiti after she lost everything in 2010, walks boldly through the village without socks and laughs at the soldiers. They get out of her way.
The local imam explains to several jihadists that his own jihad (the word means “struggle”) is with himself, to better himself in service to Allah.
Three of the soldiers argue with each other about who is the best soccer player in the world, even though sports are not permitted. They take a soccer ball from a local boy. Later we see a group of boys playing soccer without a ball, illustrating the power of imagination. When the jihadists show up, they stop playing and pretend to do exercises.
The film feels comedic at this point, but soon we witness the stoning to death of a couple charged with adultery. This scene is based on an actual event, a 2012 public stoning of an unmarried couple in Aguelhok. Another woman receives 40 lashes for singing and 40 lashes for being in the same room as a man not of her family.
Another story line involves a family that lives in a tent outside the city. Kidane is a cattle herder who loves his 12-year-old daughter, Toya. He gets into a fight with a fisherman who killed one of Kidane’s cows for damaging his fishing net. Kidane accidentally shoots him. The Islamists arrest Kidane and, per sharia law, demand a blood money payment of 40 cattle to the fisherman’s family. Since he only has seven cattle, he is sentenced to death.
Sissako’s film is a poetic tribute to people living in a difficult situation. It is beautifully shot and shows the quiet faith of some of the people. It also portrays the jihadists as humans who are misguided and more interested in power than in religion.
Timbuktu is that rare film that is both disturbing and inspiring. While it depicts some characters’ resignation to fate, it also shows the power of free will in resisting the evil of oppression by the jihadists.
The film is rated PG-13 and is available on DVD.