So many people in America don’t think Timbuktu is a real place. The cadence of its name and the frequency of its use to describe a far away mystical place makes one think it’s in the same vein as Narnia or Neverland. But it is quite real, and it’s in a part of the world I spent some time in several years ago. I was very disturbed when Islamists took it over just a few years after my visit (and even more so by the recent massacres in Dogon/Fulani violence, as my time in their homeland made that region very close to my heart). That’s why I was so pleased with the movie Timbuktu by director Abderrahmane Sissako, which really captures the humanity of this ancient, yet changing place.

Before I discuss the plot, I just need to say how visually stunning this film is. When I was in that region, quite often I would see something incredibly beautiful and I learned to not even attempt to photograph it because it would never capture properly on my film, but Sissako nails it, showing the vastness of the Sahara and Sahel with the claustrophobic intrusion of the violence to the region. I was left thinking about how there was so much room there you’d think people would easily get along, but on the other hand, people were forced to congregate along oases and rivers.

I didn’t get a screen grab of it, but there is one particularly beautiful scene where a young Al Queda boy was waiting with his gun for a signal on a black night silhouetted by a perfect moon. The juxtaposition of the perfectly serene imagery of the moon-lit night with the implied violence of the riffle really showed what the director was saying with how Islamists interfered with what this city should be.

Without a doubt, my favorite scene in the movie was when a bunch of kids and young adults played football even though the sport was banned. Their solution: they just played without a ball, collectively using their imagination to direct the game. They really got into it, sliding in for kicks, passing it to each other, and cheering at goals. I genuinely had tears in my eyes because it showed the indefatigable nature of the human spirit to persist.

At the same time as showing just how much the incursion was destroying the fabric of Timbuktu, this movie could not have done a better job at showing them as real people. It wasn’t sympathetic to their cause, but it was sympathetic to how people could get caught up in it, which is a message I think everyone needs to pay attention to.

There were a few wonderful scenes where an Islamic cleric–astonishingly patiently–instructed Al Queda members on how their actions had no place in a religion of love. In one such scene, several militants ran into a mosque to make an announcement, and the cleric gently admonishes them for wearing their shoes into the mosque, painting a clear picture of what genuine muslims were doing versus those who were using it as an excuse for violence. He then tells them to go away because they were about to pray, and looking uncomfortably at each other, they follow his instructions.

Even more powerful was a scene where militants are trying to track down the source of music since music is forbidden there. When they find it, they realize that the people are singing songs in praise of Allah, and the militants need to call their leader, because they’re not quite sure how to handle that contradiction between their faith in Islam and their faith in Islamic Jihad.

Many of the most striking moments of this movie were inspired by actual events, and the fact that all the actors were from that region, made it even more powerful. The actors in the movie could not have been better picked, especially the leads. The family the movie centers around had great chemistry together. The father’s love for his daughter tackled many stereotypes some westerners have–and that daughter was an amazing child actress, I hope she has a long artistic career ahead of her! The mother, particularly stood out to me as she was strikingly beautiful, and had the most expressive yet stony eyes. The love between her and her husband was clear to the point where when the husband left at a point of danger in the movie, instead of saying that he loves her, he makes a comment about how she knows what he wants to say but can’t. Watching this family singing together, and just the physical closeness they share, we see that their love for each other is so much a part of their life, it’s like a fish’s relationship with water. While the mother keeps fairly subdued, doing most of her acting with her eyes, until the end when suddenly her emotion overcomes her.

Another actor who really stood out to me was a tragic militant, struggling to learn to drive and struggling even more with unrequited love. You could see how he was about to burst with his emotions, particularly when he vents by firing his riffle off into the desert. Even though he was a villain, I felt bad that his life had lead him in that direction, and hoped that he would have a moment which would allow him some form of redemption–and peace.

The final character I want to mention is the enigmatic woman, some sort of witch or shaman. She represents feminine power in this movie. Al Quaeda is a bunch of scared boys, and they are confused by her complete lack of fear of them. They seem to respect it too, because for some reason, despite acting in extremely provocative ways that would have gotten anyone else shot, she is untouchable, even by the militants. Compare a scene where one woman refuses to wear gloves as she sells fish (based on an actual event) and the militants haul her away, whereas the witch walks around without a burka, bodily blocks the streets from their trucks, and at one point even calls them assholes.

This film is very powerful and I think it’s a must-watch in today’s divisive political climate as it shows both a lot of the problems with religious fundamentalism and some solutions.

Timbuktu is rated 7.1/10 on IMDB and certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes at 98% on the tomatometer.

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