As far removed from the mainstream as its setting, Abderrahmane Sissako’s unflinching picture is rich in its portrayal of totalitarian rule in Africa but not without its glimmers of hope

In the early moments of Timbuktu, a lone antelope scampers through an arid landscape, attempting to outrun its masked pursuers: AK-47-wielding jihadis in a standard-issue pickup truck. Later, those same gunmen gleefully destroy a collection of African statues, idolatrous symbols unacceptable to followers of the lunatic fringe.

In a picture rife with startling imagery, the inclusion of these disparate elements at the opening of Abderrahmane Sissako’s handsome and angular masterpiece serves as an early précis for the message that the Mauritanian director wishes to convey. After decades of famine, blight, corruption and post-colonial civil war, Africa is afflicted once more.

Locating his action in the almost mythical environs of Timbuktu — that Western byword for far flung, desolate — Sissako has constructed a formidable film of rare and quiet power, one simmering with anger beneath an exterior that appears, initially at least, to be quite mundane.

Set against the backdrop of Mali’s occupation by the Ansar Dine, an Islamic group intent upon imposing sharia law upon the region, Timbuktu possesses rich shades grounded in the daily realities of life defined by a despotic regime. Sissako may rage against the hypocrisy and cruelty of extremism but he is also quick to note that life goes on in places where such idiocy prevails; one lives and adapts.

The film regards a disparate band of characters, some major, others less so, each introduced without exposition. They are real people into whose lives the audience merely delves for a short time.

Sissako does not hold hands throughout, of course. The plot’s various strands are picked up, and abandoned, without emotion or fuss, their subjects afforded little backstory. It is, refreshingly, as far away from the din of the mainstream as its titular city is from anywhere else. Yet, the director has a story to tell, one about peaceful citizens living in the shadow of oppression.

The central narrative takes the form of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a mellow but proud cattle herder earning a meagre living in the endless dunes beyond the city’s borders. He is a tolerated outsider, unhindered by the strictures of the Islamic police.

His life seems charmed; he plays the guitar, goes for leisurely strolls and loves his adoring daughter. Kidane’s wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), steadies their familial ship with her sage words, a calming ballast in the sea of sand.

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Their destiny is soon determined by events that seem bound to invade a shrinking existence. When Kidane comes into conflict with a neighbour — a sequence framed by a remarkable wide shot placing human drama in the vastness of Africa's dusk — his destiny quickly alters.

Sissako is indicting through his own art form the sort of uncultured fools who prohibit folk music and enforce petty regulations on female clothing (‘Women must wear socks!’ says one official, through a loudspeaker).

In his own elegant manner, he does not shy away from depicting the punishments doled out with casual abandon by the Ansar Dine higher-ups. There is the chillingly routine stoning of an unmarried couple — a real-life incident that inspired this tale — and the humiliation, too, suffered under the lash by a young woman found guilty of singing within her own home.

At the same time, however, and in spite of a bleak finale, the filmmaker finds enough hope to save Timbuktu from its own sadness.

Adel Mahmoud Cherif’s graceful imam preaches enough sense and moderation to give even the interlopers pause for thought, while a game of ghost football features local children cavorting around a dusty pitch with only their imaginations in play; balls are banned.

It is a joyful, subversive scene, a quite beautiful undermining of those pompous religious police who can do nothing but watch on. The local eccentric, too, haunts the jihadis’ steps, parading through the sun-baked alleys dressed in glorious technicolour, unmoved by their preposterous rules.

Her anarchic presence is fitting. It tells the tyrants of the world that they will never cage all of the birds.

Timbuktu runs at Queen's Film Theatre until June 11. For more cinema listings in your area visit our What's On section.