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February 13, 2015

From our comfortable spaces, watching the evening news, places in conflict have a certain abstract scariness. Fox News viewers clamor that Something must be Done to prevent the brown scourge from getting a toehold here, but that’s the biggest effect it has on most of us in the west. We’re more in danger of choking ourselves to death in our panic than of any actual jihadist violence; a kind of political anaphylaxis.

Most of the time when a film takes us inside a conflict zone, it’s a scene of abject misery and violence, like In the Land of Blood and Honey. So when the news blares reports of DAESH or Boko Haram we see the violence and the misery, but we forget the life that always goes on under their thumb. We forget the people who live with this disease but do not die from it.

Abderrahmane Sissako did not make Timbuktu to remind us in the West about these people. He didn’t make it for a Western audience at all, in fact. Its structure is foreign to our ways of telling stories; its rhythms are strange, but wonderful and beautiful in their own ways.

There is no singular plot, as we normally think of it. There are a number of stories threading through the ancient city, now occupied by the jihadist group Ansar Dine flying the same black flag we’ve seen from Nigeria to the Levant. The inhabitants are almost all Muslims, but they are far more diverse than their occupiers would like. The mujahideen would flatten the vibrant local culture just as surely as an ignorant American might dismiss them all as “just a bunch of Arabs”; both do their own kind of violence to these people.

In fact, almost none of them are Arabs; only a few even speak a dialect of Arabic. They speak Koyra Chiini, and Tamashek, and Bambara, and Fulfulde, and even a little French and English. Many interactions require translators; some even require two.

They are ethnically diverse, dominated by the Songhai and Tuareg majority. Some live and work in town, and fall directly under the occupiers’ thumbs, like the fishmonger outraged that the new law says she must wear gloves in the market that make it impossible for her to handle her wares. The jihadists hunt down a singer (Fatoumata Diawara) in the night and lash her both for singing and for being in a room with a man. And yet one woman (Kettly Noël), claiming to have been teleported there from the Caribbean, dresses in fabulous colors and goes seemingly unmolested. A nomadic cowherd (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives outside the city in a beautiful tent with his wife and daughter (Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed), which seems to buy him a little leeway to sing and play his guitar. But a tragically violent altercation with a local fisherman brings him into the Sharia court just the same.

A local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) argues with Abdelkarim (Abel Jafri), the one mujahid we really come to know, over what “jihad” really means. The local interpretation of Islam is far different from the one these occupying fundamentalists want to impose, steamrolling over all the texture of the city. But even Abelkarim has difficulty living up to his group’s high ideals. The occupiers themselves are also human in Sissako’s lens.

The city of Timbuktu may have become a quiet backwater since the days when its ruler could spend so much money on his Hajj it devalued Egyptian currency, but it remains a rich and diverse local culture. Or at least it had until Ansar Dine moved in. Sissako takes a beautifully calm look at what has become of the city under the new jihadist rule. Timbuktu damns the occupiers far more effectively in its stillness than an American news source does in all its impotent, blustering rage. The film may not have been made for us, but we could learn much by watching anyway.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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