Based on the real-life occupation of Timbuktu by Islamic fundamentalists in 2012, Abderrahmane Sissako's gorgeous fourth feature reflects upon the role religion currently plays in Africa, and the foundational clash of cultures that shaped the continent.
The strategy of the jihadists is briskly made clear in the opening sequence: A gazelle sprints across the dunes, desperately attempting to outrun assault rifle fire. One of the men shooting from a flatbed truck cries, "Don't kill it! Tire it." In the following scene, the same men use sacred animist totems and statues for target practice. This recreational destruction, so gleefully disregarding history and life, is common from both Muslim and evangelical Christian groups across Africa -- such objects are idolatrous, not a shared heritage that should be protected.
More often that not, the jihadists' behavior is shown to be coming from a place of competition rather than actual divinity. They share a disregard for local culture and practicality, from which some of the film's most memorable moments are born: A female fishmonger refuses to wear gloves, shouting at the jihadists to cut off her hands; a woman being flogged for singing sings between lashes; a group of schoolboys play soccer without a ball.
The film is consistently visually stunning in a way that's ever more rare, and Sissako's bravura moment of filmmaking is embedded in a scene on a river that seals a Tuareg patriarch's fate. Even if you've hardened your heart to a point where tales of everyday people taking a stand no longer move you, it's worth seeing the film for that quiet spectacle alone.
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Writer: Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Toulou Kiki, Abel Jafri, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noël and Fatoumata Diawara