There’s a scene early on in the French documentary Salafistes (“Jihadists”) where the camera spans over a throng of people gathered in a village in northern Mali: the crowd is there to watch as the “Islamic Police” cut off a 25-year-old man’s hand. The shot zooms in as the young man, tethered in ropes around a chair, slumps over, unconscious, while his hand is sawed off with a small, serrated blade. Young boys in the background howl incoherently. In the next scene, the same young man is filmed lying in a bed cocooned by a lime green mosquito net, his severed limb wrapped in thick white bandages. “This is the application of sharia,” he tells the camera. “I committed a theft; in accordance with sharia my hand was amputated. Once I recover I will be purified and all my sins erased.” The trace of a drugged smile lingers across his face.
If the uncensored brutality of the mutilation seems gratuitous, it is hardly an anomaly in Salafistes. This is part of the point of a documentary that gained rare and dangerous access to the usually closed-off backyard of jihadi territory. After the amputation, the Islamic Police—members of Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups—surround the young man in a halo of bored silence, as their leader, Sanda Ould Boumama, clutches his shoulder. “We treated him according to what God says,” Boumama says to the camera, as if he is explaining why he has just given someone a speeding ticket. “You cannot say you are a Muslim and not know Islam.”
Salafistes is, from start to finish, a gruesome film. Originally shot in Timbuktu after the town fell under jihadist control in 2012, the documentary takes place over the course of four years—first, with live footage of life under Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali; later, using propaganda videos from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Interspersed with the scenes of violence are rare interviews with some of salafism’s most prominent, and radical, theologians, including political leaders of Al-Qaeda in Mauritania and Mali, as they are asked a series of political and philosophical questions: How do you regard democracy? (“Against Islam.”) Women? (“Irrational, and half the worth of a man.”) Homosexuality? (“Against human nature.”) America? (“9/11 was deserved.”)
It is difficult, at first, to understand why we are watching Salafistes. There is neither a voiceover nor a trigger warning from the filmmakers. There are no overarching “artistic” themes; in fact, there is no narrative frame at all. Watching Salafistes is like being transported, without the proper equipment, into a violent world where we have little idea about what we might witness next: Why, we start to wonder, are we taking the journey at all?
Near the beginning of the film, we are presented with one answer. “Members of my family died in Nazi concentration camps,” explains one of the film’s co-directors, François Margolin, behind wire-rimmed glasses. (The film’s other director was the Mauritanian journalist, Lemine Ould M. Salem.) “I profoundly wish these things are never allowed to happen again. That said, I think it’s important to listen to what these people have to say. They are not crazy. They are not isolated people: they are people who have an ideology. I think it’s important that we know today that these people have decided to wage war against us.”
The French Cultural Ministry wasn’t persuaded. After the documentary premiered at the FIPA festival in Biarritz in southwestern France in 2016, Salafistes was restricted only to journalists and credentialed reviewers while the government decided whether to ban it. Among the government’s complaints was that the film was “degrading human dignity” for showing footage of the police officer killed outside the Charlie Hebdo office. (The scene was cut at the request of the dead officer’s family.) But the greater threat, argued France’s Cultural Minister Fleur Pellerin, was that it provided an unfiltered platform for jihadi propaganda, potentially endangering the French public. “To see this film and understand that it is a denunciation of Salafism requires a bit of maturity and perspective,” Pellerin explained. “An audience that is too young and not sufficiently experienced could be lacking this perspective.” In addition, Pellerin noted, the film’s violent images were “sometimes unbearable.”
It would have been the first time a documentary film had been banned in France since 1962, when October in Paris, a film about how French police murdered hundreds of peaceful pro-Algeria protestors, was prohibited for more than ten years. The debate surrounding Salafistes was just as divisive in French intellectual circles. Le Monde criticized the film for using “amateur” jihadist propaganda alongside original footage; the film’s failure to differentiate between the two created, to its critics, a “lack of distance from the subject by the directors.” Claude Lanzmann, the French director of Shoah, a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, fired back in a separate Le Monde letter addressed to France’s former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls: “I am dismayed to hear that an unspeakable conspiracy is being waged to ban Salafistes’ theatrical release—a true masterpiece illuminating what no book, no ‘specialist’ of Islam could show, about daily life under sharia.”
After a protracted public debate, Salafistes was released in France in 2016, to an audience of eighteen and above. But in Paris, 27 out of thirty theaters canceled their showings out of fear of empowering radical jihadists. That Salafistes became the target of polemic and censorship in France is understandable. No country has seen more terror attacks, and casualties, from ISIS terrorism since 2015. But the argument that the film would endanger the French population seemed to carry its own danger—the danger of naïveté. The threat posed by the ideology articulated in Salafistes is not hypothetical: to censor the film is to deny a violence that already exists.
I’d first heard of Salafistes when I was in France in 2016, reporting on a story about the country’s deradicalization efforts, but I did not see the film until three years later, when it was released in a few theaters in New York and California at the start of this year, to unimpressed headlines. (“Interviewing, But Not Challenging Islamic Extremists,” read the 330-word New York Times review.) Outside Cinema Village, where I saw the documentary in January, a poster featured a shadowy photo of a masked gunman, with a bright red tagline: “Censored in France!” It was a crude invitation to watch what promised to be, according to its Guardian blurb, “grueling viewing.”
Perhaps this had something to do with why the theater where I watched it was so empty—or why it was gone from the city a week later—but it was not false advertising. The scenes of violence will be shocking even to those who may think they are desensitized to such things. Using Islamic State propaganda videos, some footage shows a “homosexual” man as he is pushed, blindfolded and with his arms tied behind his back, from the roof of a tall building to his death. In another scene, a group of Christian boys are shown pleading and panic-stricken as they are lined up and shot, one-by-one, in the backs of their heads. (Their bodies are dumped into a river the color of their blood.) In Mosul, an ISIS soldier no older than fifteen smiles at the camera before self-detonating inside an army tank wired with explosives.
Even more disturbing, in their own way, are the interviews. Towards the end of the film, after the journalist James Foley denounces America from a scripted prompt just before he is beheaded, the camera cuts to M. Salem, a Salafist theologian in Mauritania, as he calmly explains to the camera their position on beheadings: “Regarding the slitting of the throat, that comes from a quote from the Prophet: ‘When you kill, kill well, and when you slaughter, slaughter well.’”
These sorts of ideological liturgies are peppered throughout Salafistes. The lack of any narrative organization around them compounds a sense of disorientation that is at first frustrating, and then painful, and finally, by the end of the film, grimly educational. “Man is a natural slave to his passions and his personal interests,” explains Omar Ould Hamaha, a jihadist with a bright beard dyed red (to distinguish himself from the Jews, he clarifies). “With no authority there would be total debauchery. We see that everywhere in everyday life. Force is necessary for men to yield.” He goes on to explain that jihad is the only form of Islam—that all must convert: “If they refuse,” he smiles, “the sabre makes the decision.” In a separate scene, a public execution, a stoning, is about to take place. The “Islamic judge” says that the man being executed had allegedly killed another woman’s husband, and that the widow asked for the death penalty against him. “That’s the way it is,” the judge shrugs. “The tribunal does not have the right to go against her will.”
The West comes up repeatedly, if not obsessively, mostly in the role of enemy combatant. “9/11 was good because it taught the U.S. a lesson,” one Tunisian jihadist explains. “They spent years killing innocent Muslims.” In Mali, one of the group’s leaders echoes this. “When you capture an animal and it realizes it’s going to die, you cannot foresee its reaction. This is even more true when you attack a nation and you destroy its country and kill the people, raping and cutting the throats of men and women. Do Westerners realize they have stirred up in us hatred of their religion with what they have done?” He lists the U.S. treatment of Muslims in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib like a taunt: violence begets violence. “America thinks the world is a jungle, in which she is the lioness, and Israel her spoiled child,” explains a Salafi preacher in Mauritania. “Only he who suffers pain knows pain. God said, ‘For each sin, the equivalent punishment. He who attacks you, attack him in the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’”
I could understand why some felt the film was “unbearable”: certainly, the scenes of violence were brutal to watch. Yet what seemed hardest to bear was the sense of being rendered helpless as one bore witness to the reality of these violent lives and deaths, unframed by any narrative of hope or redemption.
“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” writes Vivian Gornick in her book, The Situation and the Story: “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” As a journalist, I’ve often found Gornick’s schema enormously helpful, but it may be that it is not comprehensive. There are occasionally works of art, or journalism, which attain significance not by telling us a story but by compelling us to take a break from storytelling.
Directed by the Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, the 2014 film Timbuktu was inspired by, and drew heavily on, footage from Salafistes. (Sissako had originally been involved in Salafistes but withdrew shortly after filming began.) Set in a fictional town in Mali just after it fell under jihadist rule, it follows the life of a cattle herder, Kidane, who is publicly executed under sharia law for accidentally shooting a fisherman. Like Salafistes, the film shows the jihadists as they implement sharia around town: music, cigarettes, drinking and dancing are banned.
But there were vast differences in the way the films were received. While Timbuktu was an Oscar-nominated, award-winning international sensation (“a masterwork,” said the New Yorker’s Richard Brody), Salafistes was banned in the home country of its filmmakers and has been a box office failure. In part, this may be due to the former being fictional: it is naturally easier for us to bear violence when we can be assured that we are watching actors being murdered, as opposed to the real thing. But there is also the fact that, unlike Salafistes, Timbuktu is firmly anchored in the perspective of the victims. There is never any question posed to us as viewers about what we are supposed to feel, or who we are supposed to root for. To the extent that there is any narrative in Salafistes, by contrast, it is the perpetrators who are in command of it. The viewer, like the filmmakers, is consigned simply to watch.
In the years since Timbuktu, there has been more terrorist violence, especially in Europe: coordinated suicide bombings in airports; trucks ramming into crowds gathered to watch the fireworks in Nice; masked men producing knives in front of the Louvre, or at an outdoor restaurant in London. After each attack, candlelight vigils are held, and the victims’ faces—not the attackers’—are broadcast on CNN and Le Monde and Al Jazeera. Often there follows a defense of “Western” values, and the posing of existential questions. When I visited the site of the Berlin attack, a Christmas market, while reporting on a separate story in 2016, all that was left, in memoriam, was a stacked pile of flowers, candles and a small sign that read in bright red, German: WARUM? (“WHY?”)
The reactions to Salafistes—of censorship, revulsion and neglect—suggest a limitation to our desire to know the answer. Do we really want to understand the boorish ideology that motivates these attacks? How much violence are we prepared to see? It’s notable that one of the most passionate defenders of the film was Claude Lanzmann, who in Shoah gave a platform to some of the early witnesses of the Holocaust—not all of them victims. “We understand that to see and listen to the protagonists of the film propagate their unfailing ideology,” wrote Lanzmann of Salafistes, “means that any hope of a change or improvement or understanding from them is illusory and vain.” In eschewing a story, the film returns us to the situation. That the situation makes us feel uneasy and helpless is part of the point; the least we can do is resist the temptation to look away from it.
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