Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.
A visual tract against religious intolerance, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s masterful film is set in the early days of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012. In the city of Timbuktu the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) orders the jihadists to leave when they enter his mosque with their weapons. Although they do out of respect for his position, outside they issue the orders rather than follow those of others. The film opens with them using confiscated traditional wooden statues for target practice. (This serves as a stand-in for their destruction of the city’s many artistic monuments.) They insist that women vendors cover not only their hair, but their hands as well. When a vendor tells her she cannot work wearing gloves, he ignores her protest. They are ready to move in on any group of youth that dare to play soccer. They patrol the streets and rooftops at night trying to catch anyone playing or listening to music, or, horrors, dancing. They careen through the streets in pickup trucks, black flags fluttering and AK-47 guns at ready.
The focus of the film is the herdsman/musician Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) who lives out in the desert with his beautiful wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12 year-old daughter Layla Walet Mohamed (Toulou Kiki). Also with them is Issan (Mehdi A. G. Mohamed), an orphan whom they have taken under their care. They are proud of the way that he takes care of their eight cows. Satima would prefer to move away from the area and join their former neighbors who have fled from the Jihadists’ oppressive rule, but Kidane is convinced that he can keep them safe in their somewhat isolated location. Not so isolated, however, as to be within driving range for one of the Jihadists, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), who, when her husband is away, rides out to tell Satima to cover her head.
Nor can Kidane escape Sharia law when tragedy results from his dispute with a fisherman over one of his cows becoming entangled in the man’s net. We also witness one of the musicians punished by thirty lashes for playing his music. More horrible is the fate of an unmarried couple found together in a room, buried up to their necks in sand and then stoned to death by their reluctant neighbors. Be glad that this is not shown with Mel Gibsonish details. The filmmaker has said that this scene was inspired by a video that had been posted by jihadists.
The citizens resist as best they can. One delightful sequence is a soccer game which the youth play despite their ball having been confiscated by the alien occupiers. They rush, dodge, kick, and maneuver their bodies so imaginatively that you can virtually see the ball. When warned of jihadists approaching in their pickup trucks, the boys immediately drop down and practice calisthenics.
This is a simple but powerful depiction of the horror of daily life under Sharia law. The brutal ugliness of the latter is underline by the beauty of the cinemaphotography. Now when I hear someone criticizing Muslims for not speaking out strongly enough against the Fundamentalists in their ranks, I can refer them to Abderrahmane Sissako’s well-crafted film. Here is a Muslim artist
showing us the ugly barbarism and misuse of religion in unequivocal terms, but with words and visuals of great beauty. I began by labeling this marvelous film as “a visual tract against religious intolerance,” but by the end we see it is far more than this: it is also the filmmaker’s tribute to the power of ordinary people to endure, even to resist—and hopefully outlast—oppressors who would attempt to shape and force them into their narrow mold.