The message is clear: jihadism isn’t necessarily a good thing. But instead of Rambo-esque flag-waving and chest-beating, Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu takes a contemplative, humanistic look at the imposition of religious idealism in West Africa. Much of the film’s power lies in the incongruities it weaves into its haunting tapestry, the awe-inspiring desert landscape (filmed in Mauritania) serving as a stark contrast to the obnoxious bigotry of the insurgents. There’s also the clash of cultures intrinsic in Maghrebi Africa, where ancient local tradition sits uneasily with Sharia law.


As the black Africans go about their daily business, the occupying Muslim forces dictate new regulations via megaphone: smoking, football and music are now prohibited and the women must cover up their heads and their hands. But how does a woman, brought up to perform such intricate tasks as the creation of jewelry and the preparation of fish, do so while wearing gloves? Yet the penalties for disregarding the Sharia directive are harsh: lapidation (stoning), flogging and amputation.




Sissako reveals all this with an understated docu-realism, while still capturing the inherent visual poetry of this forgotten outpost. He also presents the jihadists as human beings. While they follow the rules that they have adopted, they exhibit no natural blood-lust and as they discuss the accomplishments of Lionel Messi and Didier Drogba, they do so without irony. To hide his hypocrisy, one extremist sits behind a sand dune to indulge his cigarette habit. When dealing with jihadism in the cinema, it’s hard not to be schematic, but Sissako packs a far greater punch by eschewing sensationalism. He draws his greatest power from the faces of the children who know not why…




Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Abel Jafri, Hichem Yacoubi.


Dir Abderrahmane Sissako, Pro Sylvie Pialat, Screenplay Sissako and Kessen Tall, Ph Sofian El Fani, Pro Des Sebastian Birchler, Ed Nadia Ben Rachid, Music Amine Bouhafa, Costumes Ami Sow.


Arte France Cinéma/Canal+/Ciné+/CNC/TV5 Monde-Artificial Eye.

95 mins. France/Mauritania. 2014. Rel: 22 May 2015. Cert. 12A.