Last week Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu won the top prize at France’s Cesar Awards (it was also one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars). It’s only just now getting a release here in the U.S., but the fact that this modest African film has gotten a U.S. release at all, no matter how limited, speaks to its importance. Set in Mauritania, it tells of the oppression of a small community by Sharia extremists. Music and soccer are banned; women are made to cover themselves in public; a fishmonger is ordered to wear gloves while working at her stall in the marketplace. Offenders are publicly whipped and stoned. Then, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, a local farmer accidentally shoots and kills the fisherman who had earlier killed his prize bull. He is arrested by the local authorities and, because he cannot pay the high fine for his crime, is sentenced to death.
The film mostly centers on the figure of the farmer and his family, who live in the desert just outside the village where the jihadists station themselves. The stories of more tangential characters are also woven throughout the film. There’s a fascinating minor figure who wanders in and out of scenes like a kind of ghost—a local madwoman who walks the streets dragging her brightly colored raiment behind her, taunting the jihadists with her fearlessness. The jihadists, too, spend much of the film lurking ominously on the periphery, as they patrol the village and the desert in a truck armed with guns.
Timbuktu is political cinema at its most unfussily plainspoken. Sissako dramatizes the plight of his characters with a straight-forwardness that feels bracing. The world of the film is governed by a quiet anxiety punctuated by moments of calmly administered violence. Sissako doesn’t wring emotion out of the film; he doesn’t have to. Its humanism comes through loud and clear without the need for any amplification. But, paradoxically, the strengths of Timbuktu double as weaknesses. Its moral clarity is so pure that at times I found myself wishing for more poetry, more dramatic tension, and rougher edges. I wanted more of that madwoman.