Timbuktu, a film by Abderrahmane Sissako, is about the 2012 occupation of the ancient Malian city by the Islmaist group, Ansar Dine. In episodic form, the film depicts the suffering and passive resistance of the city’s residents.

Ansar Dine forbids people from listening to music (including religious music), smoking, and playing soccer. They require women to veil themselves and wear gloves. They carry out floggings and stonings of people who violate their rules.

The film is centered around Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a herdsman who lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and his daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), outside the city. When Kidane kills a man during a fight, the Islamists arrest him. One of the leaders tells Kidane that he can pay “blood money” to the victim’s family in the form of forty cows. When Kidane tells them he only has seven cows, they condemn him to death.

One of the strengths of Timbuktu is that it depicts the brutality of the Islamists without demonizing them. Instead, the film show how their own desires and interests conflict with the severe form of Sunni Islam that they’ve embraced. For example, one of the leaders has to hide the fact that he smokes from his men. In one scene, we see some of the soldiers discussing World Cup soccer. Another soldier clearly has reservations about what Ansar Dine is doing, but he is afraid to break with them. One of the leaders argues with an imam who criticizes what they are doing.

Timbuktu is a great film. It is a profoundly moving condemnation of religious fundamentalism and an assertion of human dignity.

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