One of the best films of the past year is Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmene Sissako. Understated, beautifully shot and composed, it tells the story of a village, a people, caught in the arbitrary and repressive grip of a Jihadist takeover. The focus of the film, but never at the cost of the village’s story itself, is a small family on the outskirts of Timbuktu, making a life on the dunes. Kidane, the father, Satima, the mother, their daughter Toya, and the young shepherd, Issan. Perhaps because of their existence on the periphery, this small family had managed to avoid most of the cultural and social repression being arbitrarily imposed on those in the village, but a tragic accident changes all of that.
I was struck by the images, again and again. The incredible beauty of the desert, the dunes, the motion of people crossing them, running on the sand. But, especially, the scene of a soccer game, which is one of the most beautiful in any film in recent memory. The jihadists had just handed down yet another absurd and meaningless edict, this time outlawing soccer (football for them). But this didn’t stop the youth of this village from playing the game without an actual ball. The flow, the joyful resistance to arbitrary, ridiculous power, along with the expressiveness of the camera work, make for a classic scene worth the price of admission all by itself.
And then there was music, which had also been banned. Resistance lives within music as well. Primarily led by the women of the village, we see people risking their lives for that part of life that gives it meaning, sustains them, brings them closer together in memory and song. One woman is whipped for being caught singing the blues (in a gorgeous and moving performance), and her extreme bravery continues as she sings under the lash.
These are a people with tremendous courage and resilience, and the movie never shows them breaking or collaborating with the authorities. But it also hints that there is no way out and that this is just the beginning of the repression. This is just the beginning of a return to primitive visions of “justice,” where people accused of adultery are stoned to death.
Why do we believe in fictions that crush life? Why do we accept the word of those who say they speak for divine power? Of course, once we accept the fiction that divine power exists in the first place, we are all too susceptible to that. But it’s not inevitable that we would hand over our personal autonomy to other humans, just because they claim to speak for those fictions. Even believers should demand they prove their legitimacy, prove they can justify what they ask of us, at least within the context of that fiction. All too often, however, fundamentalists in all the major religions pull nonsense out of thin air, and can’t show that even the founders of those religions ever paid the slightest attention to their particular obsessions. Soccer? Music? Dancing? And, of course, Christian fundamentalists have their own list of totally arbitrary, puritanical obsessions never mentioned by their Christ. To me, if a religion does not affirm life and bring joy into the world, it has no purpose.
Life is tough enough all by itself. To add more chains is nothing less than insane.