A truckload of jihadists fire wildly in the air, chasing down an antelope through the desert outside Timbuktu. They yell reminders not to kill it, but tire it. A row of traditional African religious statues propped up in the sand are used for target practice by unseen shooters. Kicking things off with this double dose of symbolism, Timbuktu director Abderrahmane Sissako dispenses with any further setup about the Islamic extremist occupation of the fabled Malian city. Those two boiled-down scenes are all he needs to set the tone of nervous expectation that permeates his largely plotless observational drama about a shepherd and various other residents bristling under the arbitrary rules set by the occupying militants.
In a break from the overly solemn, overly dramatic, vicious depiction of terrorism the Western media feeds on, Sissako takes a much more casual view, crafting a thoughtful movie that suggests the quotidian dangers of living under bloodthirsty jihadists are far more, shall we say, annoying, than they are imminently life-threatening. Granted, the population under occupation is already Muslim by majority, and far from the front lines of conflict by anyone’s standards, active combatant or not. Because of that, people don’t hesitate to argue with the roving jihadists, one man breaking down and removing his pants altogether when told the legs are too long, one woman offering a knife and demanding her hands be cut off straight away for not wanting to wear gloves at the marketplace.
If anyone were looking for the ultimate deterrent toward boneheads jumping on the ISIS bandwagon, this is it. Not jihad shown at its most terrible, but at its most ordinary. Sissako’s jihadists are portrayed flat out as hypocrites, regularly embarrassed by the local imam, who politely boots them out of his mosque and questions their interpretation of jihad altogether. They yak about football. One higher-up sneaks smokes in the desert and pines for a married woman. Their dithering ways give the people courage to screw with them in gloriously passive-aggressive ways, forcing them to track down the source of music only to discover it’s religious, and fielding two full football teams to act out a match without a ball.
Of course, the gallows humor reflects their unsettling reality of living under the bored gaze of gun-toting thugs. The seriousness of the situation comes to the fore when shepherd Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), normally a peaceful out-of-the-way man, commits a serious crime and must deal with the harshest possible sentence.
Sissako treats the jihadists’ official methods with the same detached curiosity as he does the rest of the action, turning scenes of punishment that might serve as a climax into fuel for the people’s continued waiting: for the the jihadists to leave, for themselves to be targeted, who’s to say? It’s a dreadful way of life, but it doesn’t keep people from living, and Sissako chooses to show how they make do living in uneasy repose. In so doing, he proposes the ultimate irony of the jihadists’ situation; for all their righteousness, they can’t serve as moral arbiters over people who know right from wrong better than they do. The only power they derive is from the barrel of a gun.
Kidane knows immediately that he deserves punishment as much as the woman who’s lashed for singing knows she doesn’t. In that way, the jihadists’ judgments are irrelevant, and their violent actions, done in the name of Islam, hold little value over anyone. Sissako makes the bold decision to undermine them by treating public lashings or stonings like small, everyday occurrences devoid of meaning and unworthy of attention. The jihadists chip away at the people they harass day by day, and by the time we join the story, their insidiousness is already passing for normalcy.
The nuances of Sissako’s vision for Timbuktu can only be corroborated by an audience who has dealt with terrorism face to face, but from as far away as North America, it can be seen how humane Sissako’s point of view is. He keeps things relatively short, and finds a graceful, languid rhythm that rolls with the surrounding sand. He and cinematographer Sofian El Fani photograph the Mauritanian desert where they shot beautifully, and Sissako assembles an impressive cast to bare their souls, be they hassled locals or troubled jihadists. For anyone disillusioned by the endless conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, take note, this is a terrific specimen of counter-programming, well told, arguments firmly placed, but remarkably reserved in passing judgment.