Timbuktu is not a movie to watch alone. It's not even a movie you want to watch with just the two of you. Timbuktu is a movie you want to watch in a community, in a circle of friends. Seriously. Get a gang of your friends together and watch it because when the credits roll and you sit there in stunned silence, you're going to want to talk about what it was you just witnessed, going to want to listen to what others say about what all of you have just seen.
Timbuktu is not a movie. Timbuktu is a film. It's a story, a life, a chapter in a world we all live in. If you're like me, it'll make you think differently about what you already think about--and fear. It may not change your mind, but a good American--and even a bad one--will almost certainly see things he or she has not imagined. Its subject is as foreign as the news. Its remarkable cinematography captures the long northern stretches of Saharan Mali in shots that will leave you speechless. Visually, some scenes in this film will not let you leave.
At its base, it's a story about a feud between families, a feud that turns violent and sad in a world where justice is merciless, where the gruesome tenets of sharia law have been sharpened into weapons of mass destruction by jihadists who have taken over the community. Some moments in this movie are very, very difficult to watch.
But cracks in the armor, lots of them, will actually make you laugh. The jihadists, who've banned soccer (playing, like singing, is banned by the zealots), argue over soccer games they've been watching on TV. Men wielding assault rifles arrest ordinary folks for smoking, then grab a cigarette just over the dune. Sinners of all varieties aren't just sinners--they're also shockingly human.
If you, like me, have roots in a religious community, some conversations will be achingly familiar because people who worship a god are not clones; we're different--all of us, even if we go to the same house of worship. In Timbuktu, the imam argues selflessly for love and mercy and respect, risks his life for his people, tries to show the jihadists a better way. Good people live heroic lives in what seems self-imposed and protective silence. Others flaunt laws openly and get by because rigidity like that created by the jihadists creates black markets in just about every human virtue and vice.
Timbuktu features characters who are blessedly human and not just ideas. If Hollywood puts a woman in a hijab, an audience knows what they're supposed to think about the character and the story. The whole controversy about the lack of African-Americans in the Oscars rises at least in part from the fact that Hollywood has created a world in which a black character is, first of all, black. Watch British TV sometime, and you'll understand; some black characters are just characters.
Timbuktu is a film about human beings. Darkness emerges from the evil ideology the jihadists carry into the village, but, as the imam actually say, it rises just as pervasively from the human heart, the place in all of us where it most abundantly dwells.
Timbuktu is not fun. Watch it with friends. Seriously.