Nominee in Academy Awards for best foreign language film – Timbuktu

ReAfrica - article on African cinema


The word “Timbuktu” is slang in the West for East of Nowhere, but in the film Timbuktu, this city in Mali on the edge of the Sahara is an epicenter, a volatile crossroads for several distinct cultures. There are African women in radiant colors, white-garbed Muslim men in mosques, fishermen who live along the river and nomadic herders who pitch their tents on dunes. And then there are the most recent arrivals: an al-Qaida-affiliated group called Ansar Dine that in 2012 took over Timbuktu and announced the enforcement of Sharia, or Islamic law.

That’s the film in a nutshell: Sharia meets multiculturalism.

A remarkable thing about Timbuktu is that it’s often on the verge of being a comedy. It’s in five languages: French, a legacy of 20th-century colonialism; Arabic; Bambara, an African language; Songhay, a group of dialects heard around the Niger River; and, finally, English, though that’s used in desperation when one man can’t make sense of another man’s Arabic. An Islamist judge must interrogate a man in Arabic and wait impatiently as his words are translated into French for the offender and Bambara for the victim’s family — funny even if the outcome is an execution.

You have to laugh when an eccentric diva in resplendent colors sashays down the street and blocks a convoy of gun-toting jihadis, her arms spread wide as if casting a spell, while the young men clearly think, “What the hell do we do now?” It’s amusing to watch jihadis stumble over rooftops looking for the source of forbidden music — but the lashings that follow strangle the laugh in your throat. Moderate Muslims, meanwhile, look on in disapproval. This is not their Islam.