I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Timbuktu recently at the Cinematheque of Tangier (a beautifully restored old movie theater). It's not to be missed. A film full of grace and depth. I wrote about it for the LRB blog:
In his film Timbuktu, Abderrahman Sissiko shows a traditional Muslim society overrun by outsiders claiming they have the God-given authority to tell everyone what to do. The film is inspired by the 2012 takeover of much of Northern Mali by jihadist and other rebel groups. It is both specific to its setting and raises questions about struggles playing out across the Muslim world. I can’t think of another creative work that takes such an imaginative, subtle, assured look at Islamist militancy and its effects.
The landscape that Sissiko films, dramatic and simple as a stage, is naturally abstract: a lake with perfectly flat shores; a hillside of dunes with a few tents and a few trees; a city of narrow sandy lanes and earth-colored rooftops (Oualata in Mauritania, standing in for Timbuktu).
At first the masked outsiders with their flags and announcements seem bumbling and almost ridiculous, actors playing their part with fragile confidence. A veteran jihadi tries and fails to coach a young member into recording a convincing recruitment video. Fighters track forbidden music floating over the rooftops, only to have to call their superiors for instructions, at a loss when they realise the criminals are singing the praises of the Prophet.