"Our neighbors will come back," Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) tells his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki). The two live in the dunes of Mali with their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), despite the fact that nearly everyone else has fled. "All of this will end one day," Kidane quietly adds, but his eyes say something different: That he's trying to convince himself of this, just as much, if not more, as he's trying to convince Satima.
Timbuktu is set amid the Islamist occupation of Mali, in the dusty city of Timbuktu and the sparse dunes that surround it. Kidane is a cattle herder, working with the help of a young shepherd, Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed), but his work is distant compared to the love and responsibility he feels for Satima and Toya—and the concerns he has about the jihadists who control the land all around them, roving the dunes in trucks, weapons in hand. The occupation is worse, perhaps, in Timbuktu, where everything from singing to smoking has been banned, with horrific punishments meted out to those who don't adhere to the constantly changing laws.
Abderrahmane Sissako's gorgeously shot, disarmingly affecting film flits from Kidane's dunes to the streets of Timbuktu—capturing, at different times and in different lights, those both suffering under Islamist rule and those perpetrating it. American news reports generally capture this kind of thing on a sterilized, zoomed-out macro scale; Sissako, on the other hand, goes close, finding moments of beauty and pain so intense that they coat the whole film in both bone-deep sincerity and ominous fear. Even as the film's emotional component rises and falls (largely thanks to Ahmed's nuanced, heartbroken turn as Kidane, particularly after an incident that all but guarantees tragic consequences), the dread stays constant. In other words, Timbuktu functions much as a real-life occupation does—even in moments of brightness and hope, you never forget who's in charge.