"TIMBUKTU" - ***1/2 (97 minutes)

 February 7, 2015
Anyone who watches the news on a regular basis almost daily sees the images of horror and outrage as radical Islamic rule overtakes people whose culture and customs reach back into centuries.  Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako puts a human face on these minutes long newscasts as he takes you into the milieu of one of these societies who are faced with conforming to the invading jihadists' demands (including banning music, soccer, and smoking) - or suffer the consequences including flogging and even death.

Sissako's inspiration was the 2012 Islamic takeover of Timbuktu and other parts of northern Mali.  Various subplots are included but the main focus is on a cow herding family.  Kidane, his wife Satima and 12-year-old daughter Toya live in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu.  Their mundane existence seems to be mostly unaffected by the radical demands in nearby Timbuktu - that is, until an unexpected tragedy results from a neighbor dispute and the resulting justice which will be imposed by the ruling jihadists.

Interspersed with this drama are scenes of various defiant confrontations between the new fundamentalist rulers and the townspeople trying desperately to maintain their customs, dignity and self-respect.  Sissako necessarily includes images of punishment but, thankfully, tones down the outrageous violence which, in the final analysis, is more effective without being sensationalistic. 

There are several breathtaking scenes of contrasting beauty offered by cinematographer Sofiane El Fani.  (One in particular is a long shot of Kidane wadding through a river after a violent confrontation with his neighbor).  The occasional music by Amine Bouhafa includes traditional Malian melodies as well as more Western influences and is effectively placed in the action.
Overall, the film is a quiet but profound meditation on the continuous domination and injustice that, unfortunately, is much too prevalent on the planet.
The film, one of five nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category, opened on a limited basis on January 28th, and in the D.C. area on February 13.

UPCOMING FRIDAY:  My annual Academy Awards Thoughts/Predictions commentary.
 (l to r) Satima (Toulu Kiki), Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and
Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) relax in their open tent home
in the desert outside of Timbuktu

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