Thursday, March 12, 2015

A jihadist threat in the desert

Timbuktu offers a bracing look at a town overrun by oppressors.

Few things are more dangerous than true believers, zealots so convinced of their rectitude that they'll do anything to impose their views on others. Of course, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know from watching the flow of 24/7 news that inundates us all.

But if you see the new film Timbuktu -- and you should -- you'll be reminded that the danger of absolute conviction not only confronts Western countries fearful about terrorism, but smaller outposts where the local society receives virtually no protection from jihadist invaders.

Timbuktu, of course, is a fabled city in the West African nation of Mali. In the movie that bears the city's name, bands of jihadists have overrun the town.

The Muslim locals have been living peacefully -- some in permanent housing in the town and some in bedouin-style tents outside city limits. Many have fled because of the extreme wave of intolerance they're facing. Those who remain are trying to preserve a semblance of normalcy; i.e., they wish to follow their faith without being forced into behavioral strait jackets.

Principal among the movie's stories is the tale of a family that lives in a tent outside of town, sustaining itself with a small herd of cows.

Dad (Ibrahim Ahmed), Mom (Toulou Kiki) and a young daughter (Layla Walet Mohamed) seem to be surviving well enough. As much as possible, they avoid contact with the jihadists.

When Ahmed's Kidane sprawls out on a carpet in his tent, he looks like a man at home in the world and comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps taking its cue from Kidane, Sissako's movie -- a recent loser in the race for a best foreign-language film Oscar -- never loses touch with the texture of life in this city of light and sand on the fringe of the Sahara Desert.

Unfortunately, a dispute over a dead cow involves Kidane in a fight in which a fisherman dies. At that point, the jihadists take over, accusing the cowherder of murder.

Sissako (Bamako) allows the movie to unfold with a naturalism that, at first, may catch audiences off guard.

But we hardly need added dramatic emphasis to understand that beating a woman for listening to music qualifies as a repellant act. There's no reason to italicize the horror when a supposedly adulterous man and woman are buried up their necks in sand and stoned to death.

During the course of his movie, Sissako enables us to understand that the oppression we're seeing has become part of the town's daily routine. And that's just where the tragedy lies. What seems imperative to a group of avid jihadists looks cruel and unnecessary to the battered residents of Timbuktu.

The inevitable result: all manner of heartbreak.

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