What does Sharia law look like for those living under it involuntarily? The notion is basically a punch line here in the United States, where the concept is largely kept within the guardrails of FOX News' special little cesspool. Scare tactic though it might be here in America, it is a horrifying reality in other parts of the world -- in the ISIL-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria and in the parts of Nigeria Boko Haram counts as strongholds, for example.
For a time in earlier in this decade, Timbuktu, the most famous city in the West African nation of Mali, could be counted as one of the places where the black flag of Islamic extremism flew (Ansar Dine, a rough equivalent to Boko Haram took large swaths of territory in the country in 2012).
The film Timbuktu is a fictionalized retelling of those days, using a family only tangentially within the orbit of the jihadists controlling the city to paint a less hysterical but no less unsettling picture of Sharia law than you might find being painted by the likes of Bill O'Reilly.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto), a cattle herder, his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and his nephew Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed) are the main characters in the film. Far from being tormented by the city's occupiers for much of the film, they instead operate for much of the film without incident, embracing a sort of Saharan bucolicism afforded them by living on the fringes of the city rather than within its confines.
Issan takes care of the cattle. Satima and Toya keep their modest home full and functional. Kidane oversees it all — his work ethic a bit of a joke even within his family, but his soulful, sweet guitar playing at night most certainly not. There are periodic visits from the jihadists occupying Timbuktu proper, but life goes on for this desert family. It’s not so in the city, where the restrictive and silly laws about everything from attire to music to sports are enforced via brutal punishments. Forty lashes is the penalty for playing music or not wearing gloves when selling fish. There’s an even more gruesome fate waiting for adulterers.
Much as Kidane (and I) would like to see these two worlds remain apart, they are of course on a collision course right from the start of the film. A fateful incident between Kidane and nearby fisherman who interferes with his herd gives the jihadists cause to bring Kidane in to their unforgiving justice system, layering tragedy upon tragedy.
Geography is everything in this film. Kidane and his family reside on the outskirts of Timbuktu, yes, but it is also the edge of civilization, a modest tent and rugs providing shelter from the swirling winds and endless sands of the Sahara. Even here, where plant life is virtually non-existent, the tendrils of jihadism can entangle and suffocate. It can take hold anywhere — on the edge of the desert, in an ancient city with mosques only a few centuries older than Islam itself.
Timbuktu is a film of subtle messages and sweeping, epic images. No matter the geography and history of the city, its inhabitants can not escape a cruel and unfeeling occupying force — one that bans soccer and smoking, even as its foot soldiers debate the relative strengths of Barcelona and Real Madrid and slyly drag on cigarettes. There are black banners and AK-47s, but for most of the film, there is not horrifying brutality. That speaks loudly in its own way. The indignities suffered range from banal to gruesome. They are total, and perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway of all.