What Happened When Christian Writers Watched an All-Muslim Movie?

Have you seen Timbuktu?

All of this movie’s main characters are Muslims. In fact, the screenplay’s deepest wisdom is spoken in a mosque by a passionate imam. But when I showed it to a room full of Christian writers, what followed was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the movies.

Last January, at a conference center on Whidbey Island, The Chrysostom Society retreat organizers asked me to share movies with the group of writers that had gathered together. This year, Timbuktu lifted us from our soggy Pacific Northwest surroundings and set us down at the edge of the Sahara. When the movie was over, we sat in a heavy hush, reflecting on what we had seen.

Consider this: A 99% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes. A Cannes Film Festival Ecumenical Jury prize. An Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Top honors from the Africa Movie Academy Awards.

Yet, like so many world-class films, Timbuktu remains almost unknown to American moviegoers. It’s subtitled, after all. It’s foreign. It doesn’t star familiar names and faces.

In a recent promotional video, a Christian filmmaker declared with confidence that he would give Christians what they want to see:

  • A Christian worldview on the screen (not somebody else’s).
  • Two hours without any risk of being offended.
  • Entertainment!

Christians gave him a lot of money, and his film was widely distributed.

By contrast, Timbuktu’s director Abderrahmane Sissako is not interested in affirming a particular “worldview.” He’s willing to offend audiences with hard truths. And “entertainment” is not his priority. As he did in his 2006 film Bamako, he bears artistic witness to the sufferings of our neighbors. He loves the poor and the oppressed by giving them representation. (Timbuktu was reportedly inspired by news that an unmarried couple had been stoned to death in Aguelhok, and by the occupation of Timbuktu by an extremist group called Ansar Dine.)

Timbuktu focuses on the family — a Muslim family, to be exact. The world they’ve known is threatened by armed Islamic extremists who bully the public for personal gain. And when the family’s herd of cattle upsets a neighboring fisherman, a clash draws the attention of the local government, which has become friendly with the extremists.

When I showed it to that room of Christian writers, our post-movie discussion overran its scheduled hour. We talked about our questions, favorite scenes, differing interpretations. We learned from each other’s first impressions, and grew together into second impressions. We could not deny that this Muslim community in Mali reminded us of the Church. Just as there is not one standard “Christian perspective” on how to interpret sacred texts when it comes to how we oppose evil—with weapons and force? with peaceful protest?—there is clearly no consensus on this question among Muslims.

Timbuktu could not have been more timely for our retreat. American politicians were debating how to treat Syrian immigrants. Presidential candidates were enflaming fears and promising to “carpetbomb” places like Timbuktu “until the sand glows.”

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What Happened When Christian Writers Watched an All-Muslim Movie?