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Arts & Life

'Timbuktu': Stories From A City Held, Then Freed

Toulou Kiki, Ibrahim Ahmed, Layla Walet Mohamed in <em>Timbuktu</em>.
Toulou Kiki, Ibrahim Ahmed, Layla Walet Mohamed in <em>Timbuktu</em>.

In one of Timbuktu's first vignettes, jihadists open fire on traditional sculptures, shredding wooden bodies with bullets. It's foreshadowing, of course: Human flesh will later face the same guns. But the moment is also a fine example of Abderrahmane Sissako's lyrical style. The Malian-Mauritanian director has made a film of unforgettable anger, yet tempered his outrage with humor, compassion and visual poetry.

The city of Timbuktu, in north-central Mali, was seized by Islamist fighters in 2012. They held the ancient crossroads for less than a year, so Sissako's movie is a snapshot of brief period. But its themes are much larger than the period it details.

Foremost, the Oscar-nominated Timbuktu is about the arrival of petty intolerance in a vast, diverse land. No fewer than six languages are heard during the movie, and the speakers are of mixed Arab, Berber and sub-Saharan ethnicities. Everybody is Muslim, but their Islam is not the rigid, punitive variety brought by the invaders. The imported fanaticism doesn't fit the locals' easygoing pastoral lives.

Much of the conflict stems from the newcomers' new rules: no smoking, no music, no soccer. Women must hide not only their hair but also their ankles and hands.

These Islamists are reactionaries, yet technocrats. They have banned guitars — integral to a region whose bluesy music is internationally known — but not videocams, cellphones, trucks and, of course, machine guns. With gentle absurdism, the film shows the warriors' misadventures with such devices.

Sometimes, the conquerors don't know to handle the conquered. They watch bemused as a exuberantly but benignly insane woman wanders the town with her pet rooster, and don't intervene when boys mime a soccer match with an imaginary ball. (When their leaders aren't around, some of the Islamic foot soldiers have a heated debate about the top European teams.)

Other infractions are swiftly punished, however. Two lovers are buried up to their necks and stoned, a barbarity based on the actual event that first inspired Sissako to make this movie. A woman played by noted Ivorian musician Fatoumata Diawara is sentenced to be lashed for performing, and sings as the blows land — an operatic moment the director manages, with his usual grace, to integrate into the film's low-key style.

The skein of loosely knit stories also includes a crime that would be grave in any society: Herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) accidentally shoots a fisherman, Amadou, during a fight over the killing of one of his cows. (In another droll acknowledgement of the modern world, the animal is named "GPS.")

Sissako films the scuffle's aftermath from a great distance. Desert and water are tranquil as Kidane scrambles away while Amadou crawls in the other direction. The sequence, sweeping yet intimate, exemplifies the director's gift for unifying disparate tones into a cohesive, unfussy whole.

As the narrative circles back to its opening, Kidane's story turns out to be central. The herder's beloved wife and daughter, Satima (Toulou Kiki) and Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), emerge as major players. And Kidane's punishment is complicated by the fact that a jihadist chief (Abel Jafri) has a crush on Satima.

Finally, one of the characters trades places with the racing gazelle seen in the opening scene. The moment, like all of this beautifully filmed and composed tale, is a poetic expression of life in the Sahara. It's also a vision of a realm in which human and animal, creature and environment, meld into one. Dogmatic absolutes simply can't be imposed on such a land.

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