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

Introducing a new series from film critic Jeffrey Overstreet.
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.”

But my choice was not about an election year. Instead, I was inspired by the great Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner, who in his book Whistling in the Dark reminds us of Jesus’ commandments:

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces, but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

Christians can choose to dwell on — and invest in — movies that show us what we already like, tell us what we already know, assure us of our own salvation, and make us feel happily entertained. That isn’t wrong. But might we make better use of our time? Might we exercise courage and conscience, step outside of our comfort zones, attend to our neighbors, and learn from their experiences?

One fellow writer told me that Timbuktu “has to rank as one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen, one I’ll not forget soon — and therefore one of the finest.” Another called it “deeply disturbing and profoundly necessary.” A third asked for recommendations of other films about Muslim characters. (I recommended Taxi, A Separation, and The Wind Will Carry Us.) Timbuktu, he said, “will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

I want to bring experiences and conversations like this into living rooms, classrooms, and churches. So I hope you’ll join me for this new weekly column: “Viewer Discussion Advised.” Every Friday, I’ll recommend a movie. I’ll offer post-viewing discussion questions (like those posted below) for those who are willing to travel together through a screen darkly… and visit places like Timbuktu.

And starting this week, I’m teaching “Viewer Discussion Advised” as a film class for home-schooled high-school students, just as I prioritize these discussions in a graduate course I teach for Houston Baptist University. Because we don’t need more entertainment. We need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

I recommend Timbuktu for moviegoers ages 17 and up. It is currently available on DVD and on various streaming platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.

Questions to Discuss and Consider:

1. Here’s my favorite post-movie question: What does this movie love? Some movies criticize violence, but then they stage violence with such enthusiasm that it becomes the most compelling thing in the movie. Others, like the Coen Brothers’ films, love their characters, delighting in their faces and voices and idiosyncrasies. What does this movie “love”?

2. Timbuktu opens with the sight of a gazelle bounding across the desert. Why start with this? How does it represent what is to come?

3. One scene shows us two men struggling in a shallow lake. They are silhouetted against the reflection of sunlight on the water. It’s a timeless, mythic moment. During this long shot, we hold our breath. We know that we are watching a turning point in the history of this troubled community. Why didn’t Sissako film this scene in close-up? Is his framing of this scene effective? Why or why not?

4. With which character in the film do you empathize the most? Why?

5. Consider the imam’s argument with the armed extremists. How do they define “jihad” differently? How does this resemble, or clash with, Jesus’ arguments with the religious leaders of his day?

6. The ritual of public stoning is the focus of a disturbing scene. Do you see any correlation between this public judgment and anything that occurs in American culture when someone is caught in an indiscretion or a crime?

7. Talk about the women in this film, and how different men in the movie treat them. Does it seem that Muslims agree on how women should be treated? What does that tell us about Islam? Do you sense any correlation between the gender roles in this culture and gender roles in the church?

8. A young Muslim man is directed to condemn Western culture in a video for the jihadis. He is reluctant. Why? What causes his hesitation? How do we see Western culture influencing the people of Timbuktu? Are they able to adhere to their rejection of consumer culture?

9. Is this film “preaching a message”? Or is it “wrestling with questions”? Talk about this. How do the film’s final moments demonstrate your answer?

10. More than once we see someone raise a cell phone to the sky. Why might Sissako give this image such focus?

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of Through a Screen Darkly and Auralia’s Colors. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, where he now teaches writing. He also teaches a film-and -apologetics course for Houston Baptist University. He has been writing about art, film, and faith for more than a decade at LookingCloser.org.

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