What seems like serendipity in the timing of a film's release sometimes signifies prescience and vision on the part of the filmmaker. Award-winning writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness) read a brief account in a Parisian newspaper in 2012 about a couple with two children in northern Mali who were stoned to death for their unmarried status. Sissako — who was born in the North African nation of Mauritania, spent part of his childhood in neighboring Mali and eventually settled in France — decided to make a film about the unfolding occupation by Islamic extremists of historic Timbuktu and two other cities in northern Mali. Two years later, Sissako's stunning Timbuktu won two awards at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival around the same time the world's full attention turned to the reigns of terror of the militant Islamic groups ISIS in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The Malian government recaptured Timbuktu by January 2013, which allowed Sissako to return to his former homeland and collect stories of suffering under Sharia law. (The constant threat of suicide bombers made shooting in Timbuktu impossible.) Sissako's film opens a window on an unseen world and allows its vividly drawn fictional characters their full humanity — including the jihadists, whose absurd hypocrisy serves as a rich source of humor. Artful and essentially apolitical, Timbuktu condemns religious extremism but leaves you with an understanding that oppression of this kind is not limited to a particular people, region or belief system.
Ironically, the harsh realities depicted in Timbuktu take place in a city that possesses mythical status across the globe and for centuries has served as a vibrant cultural crossroads. The Timbuktu of Sissako's film is modern in the sense that there are smartphones, motorcycles and YouTube propaganda. But daily activities from soccer to music have been banned outright (Mali enjoys one of the world's richest musical traditions); an official roams the streets with a bullhorn warning women to cover their hands and feet (along with the rest of their bodies) in the name of modesty; and perceived crimes are swiftly punished by lashings, mutilation or death.
Timbuktu focuses on the consequences of a tragic confrontation between a shepherd and a fisherman in a place where the modern civil justice system has been replaced by a kangaroo court. Additional story threads are woven into the fabric of the film: a young woman is kidnapped and forced into marriage with a jihadist soldier, and an authentically devout imam reasons in vain with the jihadist leaders about leniency, forgiveness and misinterpretation of the Quran. It all adds up to an eloquent and passionate plea for secular humanism in an increasingly fundamentalist world.
Tunisian cinematographer Sofian El Fani (Blue is the Warmest Color) brings an artist's eye to Timbuktu's spectacular desert landscapes. Paradoxically, those arresting images highlight the film's intentionally human scale. Sissako's film reaches a peak of artistry in a scene where two full-size teams defiantly play soccer with an imaginary ball under the disapproving eye of a jihadist official. One of five nominees for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — a true rarity among African-made movies — Timbuktu finds hope in the resilience of the human spirit.