“Timbuktu” debuts this week on Amazon streaming; it is also available on Blu-ray and DVD.
A haunting scene in “Timbuktu” (2014) depicts two teams of young athletes running back and forth on a field engaged in offensive and defensive patterns familiar the world over: kicking, dribbling, passing, blocking. All that is missing is a ball and goal markers. Western sports are forbidden — haram — by jihadist occupiers. The impulse to play and compete won’t be denied, but soccer paraphernalia must not be spotted by morality police drive-by patrols.
The scene strikingly echoes a moment in the life of Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, as archbishop of Krakow, at a point when Soviet authorities had forbidden religious images in public. Wojtyla’s response was to lead a procession through the streets ceremoniously bearing an empty frame in which the expected image of Poland’s Black Madonna of Czestochowa was visible only to the eyes of faith.
Wojtyla could afford open moral resistance, gambling that Soviet authorities would not crack down so long as the letter of the law was obeyed. By contrast, the Malians of Timbuktu cannot risk letting jihadi patrols guess that they are even playing soccer in their hearts. At the first sign of an approaching Jeep, the mock game is suspended.
Co-written and directed by Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, “Timbuktu” was nominated for best foreign-language film in the last Academy Awards, and at Cannes it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize, awarded by Catholic and Protestant jurists nominated by the Catholic media organization SIGNIS and the Protestant group Interfilm.
Sissako’s film mourns the collision of two very different forms of Islamic practice: Mali’s indigenous, relatively moderate Sunni and Sufi cultures and an encroaching militant fundamentalist piety imposed by the Salafi jihadist movement Ansar Dine, which has ties to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Ansar Dine’s recent reign of terror in Timbuktu, a city in the West African nation of Mali, was mercifully brief, but the sickening imposition of stifling rigors on a community with longstanding traditions of more humane religious expression is a dreadful pattern that continues to threaten communities throughout the Muslim world and beyond.
Out in the desert, an easygoing herdsman named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto) leads a quietly serene life in tents with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). In many ways, their lifestyle seems unchanged from that of their forebears a millennium earlier, although Kidane has a guitar and Toya has a cellphone. Their distance from town insulates them somewhat from the occupiers, although not enough: Their leader, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), has a disconcerting habit of dropping by and harassing Satima when Kidane isn’t around.
In town, the new regime takes hold in fits and starts. Women whose dress accords with local standards of modesty are ordered to cover more of their bodies. First they are veiled; then comes an announcement that women in public must wear socks and gloves. “Wear gloves to sell fish?” a woman in the marketplace objects indignantly. “Our parents raised us in honor without wearing gloves.”
Most inhumanly of all, the jihadis forbid all music, even singing or humming. I can think of almost nothing more incomprehensible in religion than this. Anyone with a soul should recognize that the Creator who made the sun to shine and grass to grow made man to sing. To hate and forbid music is to hate and forbid humanity itself. Why would the Creator hate the work of His own hands?
Yet even this is far from the greatest outrage. A marriage proposal from an Ansar Dine militant is really a demand; the mother’s objection to the proposal, which she protests is contrary to local tradition, is taken as grounds for a threat of force. Much of the conflict in “Timbuktu” is over control of women’s bodies.
Despite the jihadis’ best efforts, human nature continues to assert itself, in sometimes surprising and revealing ways. The militants’ own compliance with with their version of Sharia is far from absolute; it is an open secret that one of the Ansar Dine leaders smokes in private, and amongst themselves, foreign fighters argue about their favorite soccer players and teams.
Resistance to the new regime takes some eye-opening forms. A soft-spoken imam with a salt-and-pepper mustache and the barest hint of a goatee intercedes with quiet moral authority on behalf of his people and their local practices, gently but firmly rebuking the jihadis for their roughshod ways — and, to an extent, his authority is respected, or at least tolerated.
The woman selling fish refuses outright to don the gloves, angrily declaring that if they must her oppressors might as well cut off her hands. “We’re not here to cut your hands!” they respond, abashed — for now. If things continue on their present course, it’s not hard to foresee a day when ungloved hands will indeed be severed.
Despite the ban, music and singing continue in secret, and at night militants stalk the rooftops of the city looking for the source of the echoing notes. When the music-makers are caught, a woman is sentenced to 80 lashes — 40 for the music, 40 more for being in a room with men. Her defiant response to her punishment is the film’s most stunning display of moral resistance.
Filmed and edited with slow, patient rhythms reflecting the local culture, “Timbuku” follows a number of narrative threads, the most prominent of which involves Kidane and his family. Kidane’s daughter Toya remarks at one point that the reason her father is still alive is because he is a guitar player rather than a warrior. In an honor culture, though, even a guitar player is not entirely exempt from warrior duty. Perhaps it is partly Islam’s famous fatalism, resignation to the will of Allah, that leads so many characters to walk such perilous paths with such disconcerting calmness, when other paths might be taken.
Although “Timbuktu” unambiguously sides with the local community against the jihadis, it does not presume to adjudicate their differences on religious grounds. Instead, by revealing a diversity of belief and practice within the Islamic tradition, the film offers a challenge to the view shared by Islam’s hardline defenders and critics that only militant, rigorist Wahhabi-style Islam is true Islam. For Western viewers who associate moderate Islam primarily with Westernized Muslims living in pluralistic countries, the portrait of the naturally peaceful community of Timbuktu is a revelation.