Timbuktu- Now Available on Netflix !

......an unflinching, quietly furious exploration of life under radical Islamist rule

‘Timbuktu,’ an Abderrahmane Sissako Film 

By   A. O. Scott   JAN. 27, 2015 ( New York Times)

This month, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” an official selection in Cannes last year and a current nominee for the best foreign-language film Oscar, was caught up in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, when the mayor of a Paris suburb briefly succeeded in banning it from a local cinema. Coming amid an outpouring of public and official support for freedom of speech, this act of censorship was both dismaying and ridiculous. 

Mr. Sissako’s movie, far from being “an apology for terrorism,” as the mayor (who, of course, had not seen it) supposed, is an unflinching, quietly furious exploration of life under radical Islamist rule. It also makes a point about power that even non-extremist, democratically elected leaders would do well to keep in mind. When you try to restrict the movies people can see, the music they can play or the opinions they can express — in the name of whatever theological or secular ideal you claim to represent — you may or may not become a monster. That you will make a fool of yourself is, in contrast, a moral certainty.

The authority of the jihadist in 'Timbuktu' is cruel, but is is also absurd. Mr. Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and whose films have mainly been set, like this one, in Mali, examines the varieties of this absurdity with an eye that is calm, compassionate and remorseless. The most obvious vice exhibited by members of the militia controlling the desert city of Timbuktu in the name of Allah is hypocrisy.

Their failures to live up to their own notions of Sharia Law are evidence of their humanity. Abdelkarim (Abel Jafri), one of the leaders, sneaks off behind a dune to smoke a cigarette, an activity he has forbidden in the city. "Everyone knows you smoke," says his young driver, who has been trying to teach his boss to drive a stick shift. In the midst of flirting with the wife of a herdsman, Abdelkarim scolds her for immodestly leaving her hair uncovered. He also experiences a frustration common to many filmmakers when he tries to direct a video featuring a young fighter whose diffident, hip-hop-inflected performance style doesn't quite strike the right tone. "We are not doing, 'Yo man,' " says the would-be auteur, "were doing religion".

But the way he and his comrades do it is hardly a laughing matter. In the course of the film, a couple accused of adultery are stoned to death. Members of the Islamic Police storm a house where music is being played and one of the muscians  (a woman, of course) is publicly whipped for the crime. When a jihadist's offer of marriage is refused, he vows to take his would-be-bride by force. When he does the commanders inform the local imam that their interpretation of Muslim law is by definition, the correct one. Might makes right, and the righteousness of the strong is an excuse for all kinds of indulgence.

Collectively, these warriors in the name of Allah are a bunch of bullies. They are indifferent to local customs and ignorant of many of the languages spoken by the residents of Timbuktu, an ancient trading hub known for its cosmopolitanism.    Individually, the fighters are sometimes sadistic, sometimes weak, sometimes kind and frequently confused. 

Showing them this way is not a matter of 'humanizing' fanaticism, which is the kind of accusation that is often unthinkingly leveled at stories that veer away from presenting political conflict as a simple fight between good and evil. How could the bad guys be anything other that human?  Their folly lies in the belief that they can transcend that condition and terrorize their fellow Muslims into holiness. They may be sincere in their devotion to their God and His Prophet, but they are still jerks. 'Timbuktu' is an act of resistance and revenge because it asserts the power of secularism not as an ideology but rather as a stubborn fact of life.

In that way, it is un peu Charlie Hebdo, though Mr. Sissako's sensibility is gentler, his satirical impulse less scabrous and his imagination more expansive than that shared by most of the magazine's cartoonist. There is a strong current of anger and disgust running through his film, which was inspired by the Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other parts of Northern Mali in 2012.  With some adjustments, it could have been set in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or Pakistan. But the glory of "Timbuktu"  lies i its devotion to local knowledge, in the way it allows its gaze to wander away from violence toward images of beauty and grace.  


“Timbuktu” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Horrific violence, discreetly presented.