By Elias Savada | February 18, 2015

In his latest film, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako tackles the indignities and hypocrisies of the religious fundamentalist movement in a searing portrait of life turned asunder in an occupied African community. While his 2006 film “Bamako” examined corruption in the world banking system, “Timbuktu” more closely relates to the desert wasteland found in the director’s “Waiting for Happiness” (2002), a slow-paced, near plotless slice-of-life tone poem. All festival favorites (Cannes, Toronto, and New York were among those that have presented his current work), Sissako has also secured one of the coveted five best foreign language film slots in this year’s Oscar race.

The stress of forced Sharia law infects the remaining inhabitants of the titular town—including off-the-beaten path tent-dwellers Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his loving wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their innocent 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and the displaced Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), a child shepherd—whose neighbors, for the most part, have fled the country. The new marching orders: no music, no smoking, no soccer, no adultery. The absurdities are abundant, be it wearing a particular pair of socks, a full veil over a woman’s face, or trying to fold one’s pants’ legs to a proper length. The stern invaders, often in need of a translator to speak with the townspeople, have a thuggish attitude that rubs many residents the wrong way. Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), one of the ruling invaders, is a secretive cigarette smoker. He puffs away in the area sand dunes, hidden from those he persecutes. Remorselessly returning to his jeep, he gets upset when his assistant casually tells him that everyone knows he smokes. Name names, he orders, or else. He’s also got a hankering for Satima.

The Jihadists, who don’t always elucidate their unsmiling beliefs while creating a singular universe to refute the peaceful pleadings of a local Imam, improvise in kangaroo courts and order floggings, whippings, stonings, and death to those who disobey. The situation worsens when Kidane, a generally soft-spoken individual whose family is mostly off the occupiers’ radar, takes hot-headed action against a local fisherman who has killed one of Kidane’s cows. As in the real headlines that populate the news—the Islamic State recently beheaded a Syrian offender for smoking—Sissako’s story is based on the 2012 stoning deaths of a man and woman, parents of two young children, in a small town in Mali. Their crime? That they were not married in the eyes of God. There is no live and let live here. What struck the director even more was that the execution, shown on the internet, “was greeted with total indifference by the media and the world.” The film offers up little hope for any the towns in Asia and Africa that are experiencing ISIS atrocities such as the ones on display here. Like a Michael Moore documentary, it does want to enrage you into political and humanitarian action.

While disgust pushed Sissako to create a subtle, rage-fueled statement in “Timbuktu,” with a deliberate rhythm that eschews pompous realism, it was his training (in Russia) that has embraced an effective, rambling story (which he co-wrote with first time screenwriter Kessen Tall) about the village’s dwindling inhabitants and their bumbling, sadly committed oppressors.

There’s no oasis to be found in this film’s arid landscape. Peaceful co-existence is just a mirage.

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