The legendary, almost mythical city of Timbuktu is one which I’ve been hearing of since childhood, although mostly as a reference to a place far, far away which is used as a punchline whenever telling someone to get lost to the edge of nowhere, or as a place people or things get to when they are hopelessly lost. In reality the city is an ancient place of brilliant history which was known to be a cosmopolitan center of learning and trade in days of yore. However, the city shown in this movie, by famed African director, Abderrahmane Sissako, is anything but. Sissako bases his story on the time in 2012 when Islamists overtook Timbuktu and other parts of Northern Mali and started imposing their own hardline version of their religion on the mostly poor people there. And, as other examples of such takeovers by Islamist groups in parts of the world have shown, these autocratic, hypocritical leaders set about destroying the local population and the culture of the place.

In this film, there are snippets which show this, like the destroying of a God’s statue, the stoning of a couple caught in an adulterous liaison and the punishment by whipping for various misdemeanours. They are against anybody playing music, playing football and of any woman showing a bit of skin. In a scene of biting sarcasm, a woman selling fish asks the soldiers on how she can be expected to clean and sell her wares if she is made to wear gloves covering her hand. And the hypocrisy is visible; the sneaking of cigarettes by a commander despite banning it within the city or the discussions on Zidane and Messi by the jihadists despite banning football.

There are no obvious protagonists as the story is more of a general commentary on how the lives of the people change in the wake of the imposition of Sharia Law by the army who takes over, but it is the story of a herder, Kidane and his family which gets more mileage especially towards the end. His wife eyed by one of the commanders, who keeps coming that way when Kidane is away, the herder gets embroiled in a feud with a local fisherman and tragedy strikes. The full force of the Islamist regime is felt by Kidane and his wife and daughter as the grim practises of their law and order take hold.

One of the running themes in the story is how, as seems common to most religious regimes, women are marked out for especially severe punishment, whether in the restrictions imposed on them or the punishments meted out in the wake of infringements. The same is in view here too as we see women being forced to cover up every inch of their body while being subjected to lashes for ‘crimes’ like playing music. The key to any religious fanatic’s mind is in the inherently suppressed desires expressed in the form of draconian edicts against the source of their desires, it would seem. The sensible riposte would have been that which Satima (Kidane’s wife) assails the leering commander with; if it bothers one, one should not look that way. But of course, logic is never a comfortable companion to those assailed by fervent religion. Another sequence has a young woman being promised in marriage to a young jihadi soldier in absentia of both herself and her parents. When the local imam, who believes in a more sensible and tolerant practise of the religion tries to intervene, he is told by the leader that they have made this decision as per the will of God and there shouldn’t be a problem. Basically, these are bullies in the guise of moral police.

The film is shot to showcase the unique arid sandy atmosphere, which the city is symbolic for, with the lanes passing through houses made of mud and sand and a tough race of people, who have obviously never had it easy in life. The movie was an Oscar nominee at the time of its release and the director, a Mauritanian born in Mali, is well versed with the subject. It’s a heartfelt paean to a lost city and culture and a lament for the souls of many such places and peoples who suddenly find themselves strangers in their own home on account of occupying forces like the ones shown here.

For those of you interested, here is a link to a good article, written around the time of the film’s release, about the city and some beautiful photographs: