Although the film was directed by Abderrahmane Sissako of Mauritania, it takes place in neighboring Mali, where, in real life, Islamist fundamentalists took over the ancient city of Timbuktu (population: 55,000) in April 2012 and imposed harsh sharia law. In the film Timbuktu, the Islamist leaders are foreigners, Arabs who don’t even speak the local languages. They ban smoking (except for the leader himself, who does so in secret) and music. Even singing songs in praise of Allah is subject to punishment of 80 lashes. Women must wear gloves, not the easiest thing in the world if your job is selling fish at the market. They also ban soccer, which leads to one amazingly poetic scene. Since balls are forbidden, the young men and their coach go out onto the field and pantomime a match. They run, pass, dive, make slide tackles…all without a ball. But even that is too much. When a jeepload of Islamist enforcers suddenly appear, the players stop their faux game and pretend to do calisthenics.
We hear a lot about Islamist extremism, but don’t often get to see how it disrupts the daily life of normal Muslims, so Timbuktu provides a welcome service. For the record, French and Malian troops retook the city of Timbuktu after nine months.