Set near the beginning of the Northern Mali conflict, Timbuktu opens on a shot of an antelope running through the desert with jihadists firing at it. “Tire it!” says a leader. “Don’t kill it.”

 

It’s foreshadowing, as the jihadists at first seem like a nuisance to the people living in and around Timbuktu. But then they become more militant, and ultimately wear down the populace.

 

At first, the jihadists just want women to cover up. Then they ban music. Then soccer (though several jihadists secretly debate the greatness of contemporary players, one of many instances of hypocrisy throughout the film). Then they beat people. Then there are forced marriages and stonings for adultery.

 

Director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako humanizes the jihadists without ever sympathizing with them; he’s on the side of ordinary people being forced into a totalitarian existence. Much of the narrative focuses on Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, excellent) and his family as they struggle to keep a semblance of a normal existence. But when the jihadists broadcast through a loudspeaker that people will be punished for doing “any old thing,” all hope may be lost. The heartbreaking and beautiful Timbuktu was a contender for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

 

TIMBUKTU

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

With Ahmed, Abel Jafri and Toulou Kiki

The Screen
PG-13
97 min.