This film by the Mauritanian director, Abderrahmane Sissako, has been getting good reviews by cinephile critics, and I seem to recall hearing good things about his previous film, Bamako (2006), as well. It’s set in and around the Malian city of Timbuktu, and it concerns the local citizens having to cope with an incursion of extremist fundamentalist Muslims. I don’t think it’s stated explicitly, but the fact that one of the jihadists says he’s from Libya certainly implies that these are the Tuareg forces who left Libya and took over Mali for a while after the fall of Gaddafi. The invaders speak Arabic, while the locals speak their own language, but we also hear quite a bit of French and even a little English, as everybody struggles to communicate across various divides.
The story circulates around a number of characters, and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what part a few of them were playing in the grand scheme of things (e.g., the flamboyant woman with the rooster who says she came from Haiti after the earthquake). The core of the story is about a cattle herdsman and his wife and daughter who live outside the city and eventually have their lives disrupted by the jihadists. We also see a number of other people who fall afoul of the strict regulations the jihadists impose on them. The key thing is that these people (with the possible exception of the Haitian woman) are already devout Muslims, and they are outraged to have these foreigners forcing their extremist version of Islam down their throats.
It starts out as a kind of satire, but it ends up a tragedy. The extremists are portrayed with a certain amount of sympathy or understanding, in the Renoirian sense of everyone having their reasons, but ultimately they are shown to be dogmatic monsters. However, their victims are not portrayed as innocents. They have their faults and conflicts, and one conflict in particular leads to a horrible crime. Another thing I didn’t understand, I must admit, is why the penalty for that crime is initially described as a payment of forty head of cattle but then quickly becomes the death penalty instead.
I’m sure there was a lot I didn’t understand, even though the basic conflict is pretty straightforward. For me it was most powerful as a view of how the biggest victims of Islamic extremism are other Muslims. It puts this across in the most human, humane terms possible. It’s ultimately a terrifying, terrible story, but it’s full of great visual beauty and marvelously composed shots as well. Despite that beauty and the initial humor and sweet portrayal of familial love, this is definitely not a feel-good story. It ends before the invaders were driven out by French and Malian troops, and the final shots are utterly heartbreaking. We are left with a life ruptured. We are left feeling devastated and hopeless.