Some have criticized Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated film “Timbuktu” for, amazingly, going too easy on jihadists.
The achingly beautiful film, out on DVD this week from Cohen Media, looks at life under jihadist rule in a small community in northern Mali. The Muslim extremists who rule the town with AK-47s and arbitrary rules are indeed presented as complex human beings, not cartoon villains.
But it’s those glimmers of humanity, of normalcy, that make the cruelty and brutality of life under jihad so piercing for the viewer. Sissako could have made a polemic, but instead the film feels like a window on how life is lived halfway around the world.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) is a kindly farmer who tends his few head of cattle with his wife and daughter, living in a tent on the windswept plains. An idyllic scene of the family gazing out on the night plains, Kidane strumming his guitar as his wife sings, seems to sum up their tranquil existence. The jihadists will occasionally head out in a pickup truck to hassle him, but mostly it doesn’t seem worth the trip. They’d rather stay in town, patrolling the rooftops with guns, chasing down people who dare to listen to forbidden music, or play the forbidden sport of soccer.
But when Kidane gets into an altercation with a local fisherman that turns violent, it puts him within the reach of the jihadists. There’s a beautiful long shot of Kidane fleeing the scene of the crime across a shallow lake, made golden by the setting sun. This is a country too pretty for such cruelty.
The jihadists aren’t monolithic creatures – they feel doubt, uncertainty, even temptation. Out of sight of their captives, we see them smoke, dance, even do donuts in the sand in their pickup truck. But those glimmers of humanity are of no help to innocents like Kidane; in fact, the jihadists may be harder on others because they want to tamp down their own failings.
What to do in the face of such barbarism? “Timbuktu” makes the case for resistance, even futile resistance, as a way of hanging onto those last shreds of identity. We see a woman being whipped for the crime of singing, begin singing defiantly as the lash comes down again and again. But the pain becomes too great, and her voice trails off into sobs. Still, for a while, she resisted.
And, in the film’s most indelible image, a group of schoolchildren banned from playing soccer instead play a pantomime version, happily passing and shooting empty air back and forth on the soccer field.
After a little while, we start to see the soccer ball too.
The Blu-ray edition of “Timbuktu” includes an interview with Sissako about the film.