Even though the atrocities committed by radical jihadists dominate the headlines and airwaves, few in the West know what it's like to live under their reign. "Timbuktu," Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako's Oscar-nominated vision of an African village overtaken by religious extremists, is a moving, haunting and beautifully shot peek behind the closed cultural curtain.
Set in the Sahara desert country of Mali, which with French help won a war against radicals taking over the country in 2012, "Timbuktu" opens with shots of jihadists firing at a frightened gazelle and then using local tribal, black African figurines - some of which are of topless female forms - as target practice. In just a few moments and without a word, Sissako captures the sense of degradation these invaders bring in their wake.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle herder and member of a nomadic tribe, is oblivious to much of what's going on. He seemingly lives happily with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their two children in a tent in the middle of a barren, bleakly beautiful landscape. But he can't keep the outside world at bay for long.
All of their friends have moved and the new overlords' heavy hand grows more wearying by the day. Cigarettes are banned. All music - a vital component of the nomadic tribes' culture - is banned. Soccer is banned and balls confiscated (there's a wonderful scene with local kids playing soccer with an imaginary ball). The female fishmongers in the market not only must be covered but wear gloves. In essence, all pleasure has been outlawed.
Kidane might have been able to avoid the draconian oppression a bit longer if a tussle with a local fisherman hadn't ended in the fisherman's death. Kidane is then thrown into the maw of Sharia law.
Yet for all the horror, there's relatively little violence in "Timbuktu." But what is there - a stoning, a whipping - is devastating in its impact. Also, the jihadists, especially leader Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), don't seem especially enthusiastic about their mission. It's almost as if they are going by a script written by others that they only halfheartedly believe (he still smokes secretly).
But rules are rules, and they are only following orders. In the end, that may be the scariest part of all.