Given many people's tendency to think of all Muslims as the kinds of extremists willing to support religion-fueled attacks on innocents, the brilliant Timbuktu comes along at a perfect moment to elucidate the diversity of Islam, and the cultural battles happening within the religion.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, Timbuktu combines stunning images of sub-Saharan Mali with simple but satisfying storytelling. Director and co-screenwriter Abderrahmane Sissako does a remarkable job bringing the viewer into an utterly foreign world of sparse, sandy landscapes dotted with mud huts and tents, and making us empathize with the local fisherman, cattle herders and children who suddenly have a cast of gun-toting foreigners imposing sharia law on the small village.
The fundamentalists controlling the town are shown as hypocrites and cowards perfectly willing to twist the word of Allah to exert their power on the locals. A woman is given 40 lashes for singing songs praising Allah while a jihadist is seen clearly enjoying the sound before he arrests her. Another man sneaks off to smoke minutes after loudspeaker announcements remind the citizenry that cigarettes are forbidden. A faithful Muslim woman is punished for not having gloves on, even though they keep her from being able to grip the fish she sells to survive.
There are several powerful story lines throughout, including one of a small herding family whose neighbors have fled rather than try to adapt to the new reality in Timbuktu. Cattle owner Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife and 12-year-old daughter seem happy living a simple life in the hills outside of town, but the grip of the extremists stretches even there when Kidane has an argument with a local fisherman.
While debates between a local religious leader and the militants' captain are enlightening, they also serve the greater narrative; Sissako never resorts to preaching to get his points about the effects of religious extremism across. Rather, he lets the stories unfold through consistently strong performances, gorgeous camera work and stirring, subtle music.
Keeping it simple proves to be the best way to tackle the complexities inherent in modern Islam. And anyone who sees the West's relationship with the Muslim world in simple black-and-white terms would do well to learn from Timbuktu's lessons. ♦