French documentary on Salafists gets rare '18 and over' rating

Margo Cinéma | Malian Islamist militia commander Oumar Ould Hamaha

The French ministry of culture will allow cinemas to show the controversial film "Salafistes", which features interviews with North African jihadists, but have banned it for anyone under 18 in a rare move for a documentary in France.


The over-18 rating is normally only given to pornographic or ultra-violent films.

According to the filmmakers, the move will "kill the film", as it effectively bans it from being aired on public TV and means cinemas will be reluctant to show it.

"Salafistes", whose title refers to the ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam that drives movements such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, drew accusations of promoting terrorism by showing frank interviews with jihadists bent on attacking Western, and in particular French, targets.

It was also accused of being an "attack on human dignity" in that it shows the murder of French policeman Ahmed Merabet during the January 2015 attacks on the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Merabet was shot at point blank range on the street outside the magazine’s offices.

Filmmakers François Margolin and Lemime Ould Salem said they had removed the offending scene, but insist that the film should be given as wide an audience as possible.

"It is the first time a documentary has been censured since the Algerian War [in the 1950s and 60s]," said Margolin. "What has upset the French authorities is not the violence, but the subject itself."

Shot between 2012 and 2015 in Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia, "Salafistes" features interviews with committed Islamist jihadists.

One of the interviewees is Oumar Ould Hamaha, an Islamist militia commander from northern Mali, who became known as spokesman and chief of staff for the jihadist groups Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Both groups are associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.

"By nature, man rebels against the will of God and is a slave to his passions," Hamaha, who was killed in 2014, says in the film. "One must act with force to make him submit. This will be done by the sword, and it is with the sword that the jihad will be spread."

In the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, Salafist preachers in the streets share their vision of jihad. Asked about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, they said the victims "got what they deserved".

And when questioned about the subsequent deadly hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris, the filmmakers were told: "Jews and Muslims are at war; it was justice."

‘Our audience is intelligent’

The interviews are cut with scenes of executions, amputations, stonings, and IS group propaganda footage.

According to the filmmakers, the violence itself serves as "the best counterpoint" to the interviewees' Salafist philosophy.

"We are reporters. We tell people what is happening and what people are saying, we want viewers to hear the [jihadists'] arguments from their own mouths," said Margolin. "Reporting on what they say is not the same thing as promoting their ideas. When making the film, we worked on the principle that our audience is intelligent."

Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 film "Shoah" was based on interviews with Holocaust survivors and also with concentration camp guards, agrees.

"Salafistes" illuminates audiences on the realities of life under Sharia (Islamic law) "like no book or any 'expert' on Islam has ever been able to do", he wrote in French daily le Monde.

"The audience comes to the realisation, by listening to the film's protagonists arguing their case, that any hope of changing their attitudes, improving relations with them, or coming to any agreement is illusory and vain," he wrote.

When the recent French film “Timbuktu” was shown in French cinemas, it was sometimes accompanied by debates and explanations for viewers, especially younger members of the audience, to avoid misinterpretations of the film's message. The film’s Mauritanian director, Abderrahmane Sissako, helped with the making of "Salafistes".

This will not be possible now that the film has been classified as unsuitable for under-18s.

"They want to prevent French citizens from knowing the truth," said Margolin. "Denying reality achieves absolutely nothing. I am certain that when the film is shown abroad, it will get a good reception."

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