timbuktuTimbuktu was a very deserving 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign film. The movie was inspired by the real life events of 2012-13 when religious fundamentalists, took over the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, destroying much its cultural heritage in the name of Islam and imposing Sharia law on the inhabitants. (They were ultimately run out.) In the film, we meet these militants as they chase down and shoot gazelles from their jeep and then turn those same guns on a cache of wooden statues, particularly ones of naked women. We find them next strutting around the town with megaphones laying down the law, upsetting the townspeople with their strict-to-the-point-of-ridiculous rules. No music. No soccer. No smoking or drinking. No fun. And women need to be nearly invisible and have zero rights. Needless so say, the locals don’t take kindly to it, including the local imam who shoos the heavily armed Jihadists from his mosque. Director Abderrahmane Sissako contrasts this claustrophobic extremism with the story of a pastoral family living in the dunes just outside town whose life soon intersects with the new order.

0216-RAINER-LTIMBUKTUThe heart of the film is this desert family, Tuareg cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his beautiful wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) who is the apple of her father’s eye. Kidane plays his guitar and sings with his family in their tent in the desert and pays an orphan boy to tend his cattle. They are happy and seem to be separate from the goings on in the town. But one of the leaders of the Jihadists clearly lusts after Satima and visits when Kidane is away. He tries to shame her into covering herself, but she turns it back at him telling him he was uninvited. There are in fact several scenes where the women deny the rebels (all men) their power. In one case, they tell a woman who sells fish in the town market that she has to wear gloves, and she tells them “Our parents raises us in honor, without wearing gloves,” but she is taken away. Another beautiful young woman is forced to marry a rebel who simply claims her. One of the more interesting characters is Zabou, a crazy woman who perhaps frightens the rebels, who doesn’t cover her head and walks around town with a rooster on her shoulder. They do nothing to stop her.

Kidane and his family are able to remain mostly under the radar of the Jihadists until a dispute with a fisherman who has killed Kidane’s favorite cow brings him into the Jihadists’ sharia court. The film doesn’t totally present the extremists as evil. In fact, they are shown to be human, sneaking a smoke, dancing when no one is watching, arguing about a football team, even learning to drive a stick. It is the banality of evil that the film nails. Timbuktu is definitely one of the most unsettling of viewing experiences. I screamed at my screen on more than one occasion. It is fiction so close to the bone that it cannot help but make you angry, and for that it is a very effective film. It also happens to be quite beautiful. I recommend it to the foreign film lovers out there. If you want to see what ISIS and Boko Haram and their ilk are like. watch it.

And thank the French for kicking these guys out!

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