Like Selma, the timing for Timbuktu, Mauritania’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, is fitting. Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama hit screens as conversations surrounding race relations in America, with police brutality serving as the lightning rod, reached a fever pitch. For Timbuktu, the current event providing a heaping share of relevance is the Charlie Hebdo attack in France and the resulting conversations about Islam, Islamophobia, and religious extremism.
Religious extremism is at the center of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, about the occupation of the eponymous Malian city by a group of Islamic Jihadists. In this new Timbuktu, women must always wear gloves, and singing, laughing, or playing musical instruments is punishable by being lashed. So is playing soccer, though one scene has the jihadists hanging out and talking about the World Cup. Cigarettes are forbidden, but one of the jihadist leaders sneaks them on the sly. For these men, their religious authority is less convincing than their guns. They roll into town, start enforcing new laws, and anyone who dares to stand up against them–as many do in ways no less brave for being small, like the group of boys who play soccer without a ball and the woman who sings as she’s being lashed–risks jail or physical punishment.
At the same time, Sissako shows the pernicious effect the extremists have on the residents of Timbuktu, including a boy who renounces his love of rap music and joins the jihadists, even though it’s obvious that he doesn’t really share their beliefs. They’re powerful. They’re united. With ultimate conviction, they say religious authority belongs to them, and some people believe them. Others don’t, like the mother of a girl forcibly married to (and, one can assumed, raped by) a jihadist. She’s told that it’s not a crime, because a man earns the right to take whichever wife he wants by being godly. There’s nothing she can do.
The thing is, of course, that all the people the jihadists are oppressing are Muslims, too. Islam is not a religion of extremists (or, in the context of current events, terrorists) any more than it is the religion of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), the kindly herdsman who sings to his wife and child, even though it’s against the rules, or the local Imam (Abel Madmoud Cherif), who exerts his power the best he can to temper the jihadists’ violence. Extremism in Timbuktu is an infection, something that draws in the power-hungry and otherwise decent alike and turns them against their own culture and others of their faith.
The look of the film bears this out, displaying breathtaking visuals interrupted by acts of violence or oppression–gun-toting jihadists rolling through town on motorcycles or a man crawling to his death after being shot. I know it’s only January, but I’m going to go ahead and call cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s work here among the best of the year. If Timbuktu gets beaten by something else, I’ll come back here and eat crow.