To the idle viewer, the small acts of resistance on display in Timbuktu might seem ready-made for Upworthy, little liberal lessons just waiting to be parceled out to anyone who "won't believe what happens next." Yet that type of self-righteous sentimentality — and its opposing strawman, knee-jerk cynicism — is largely a Western luxury. 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 religious groups across Africa, piety bragging rights — such objects are idolatrous, not a shared heritage that should be protected.
More often than not, the jihadists' behavior is shown to be coming from a place of "I'm doing it more/better than you" rather than actual divinity. When they first arrive in the city, Sissako's jihadists ride through the streets, announcing a laundry list of rules via megaphone, first in Arabic and then Bambara (the language that Malians speak). The order of languages underscores their 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 songs between lashes; a group of schoolboys play soccer without a ball. As the city's imam tells them after they enter the mosque with shoes and guns, "Here in Timbuktu, he who dedicates himself to religion uses his head, not his weapons." It's also important to note that the men imposing these regulations come from a variety of countries (France, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, to name a few), the language barriers often making interactions between themselves and the residents acrimonious by chance, an instance of history repeating itself: Traders from the Middle East brought Islam to Africa, an early case of outside forces influencing the continent.
Chance also guides Timbuktu's structure, which offers up a handful of narrative threads of varying length that don't always intersect or get resolved. The most substantial is the story of a Tuareg family, camped just outside Timbuktu, whose tragedy has nothing to do with the jihadists. The Tuareg have been increasingly marginalized in the post-colonial era, and the actual overtaking of the city was in fact a rebellion led by Libyan Tuareg; however, Sissako shows, but never overstates, the differences inside this ethnic group. 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 the 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.