'Salafistes': Film Review

Salafistes still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Margo Cinema
A raw and unsettling look at extremist Islam in practice.

Controversial documentary that inspired 'Timbuktu' received an NC-18 rating in France.

Taking viewers into the darkest corners of radical Islam, the highly controversial French documentary Salafistes uses the words and actions of jihadists to paint a brutally unadorned portrait of a movement whose influence has spread considerably over the last decade. The subject of much discussion in France, where it was originally denied a distribution license and is now being released in a handful of theaters with an NC-18 rating, this informative if disturbing montage of interviews and propaganda films will most likely reach viewers online, where it will join a stockpile of like-minded material presented without counterpoint or commentary.

Co-directed by Mauritanian journalist Lemine Ould M. Salem and Gallic producer-filmmaker Francois Margolin, the 71-minute assemblage — culled from footage gathered in Africa, Maghreb and the Middle East between 2012 and 2015 — was at first banned by the French Ministry of Culture for including images of a police officer killed during the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, as well as for allegedly being an "apology for terrorism." The directors decided to cut out a few problematic scenes, convincing the government to slap their work with a rare "Interdit au moins de 18 ans" rating, which is usually reserved for violent horror or pornographic material. With only two theaters screening it in Paris and a few others in the provinces, Salafistes will surely be a film that’s talked about more than it’s actually seen by the public.

What may appear as off-putting to many is the filmmakers’ decision to present scenes without any voiceover or context, making for some extremely unsettling moments – including a sequence where a man has his hand cut off for stealing, and another where men accused of being homosexuals are tossed from a rooftop by members of ISIS. Such barbarism (is there any other word for it?) is intercut with lengthy interviews where the jihadists attempt to justify their acts, explaining that they are "only carrying out their divine duties" in order to “purify the world" of anyone who doesn’t think like them.

For those unfamiliar with Salafism, which is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam (a minority of whose members are said to be Salafi jihadists), some of the discussions may appear eye-opening, while viewers already critical of such rhetoric will instead roll their eyes at all the theological droning. (If the various subjects on display seem to have one thing in common, it’s their total lack of humility and humor.) 

But the claim that Salafistes is apologizing for terrorism seems unfounded, and what Ould M. Salem and Margolin are attempting here is a montage that speaks for itself, juxtaposing theoretical banter — including explanations of sharia law — with scenes showing how such theory is put into practice, often in the most vicious way possible. A late sequence, where ISIS fighters execute innocent victims driving alongside them on a highway in Iraq, is especially unnerving in this regard: If random killings — most likely of other Muslims — are also justifiable in the name of god, then anything goes.

It’s possible that the film is unintentionally preaching to a certain choir, although most prospective or active jihadists do not really need to go to the cinema to watch interviews or propaganda videos that are readily available on the Internet. (This includes one piece of ISIS agitprop that’s all the more horrifying because it has the production values of a mid-sized Hollywood movie.) Still, the filmmakers’ refusal to either explain or contextualize their material sometimes comes across as imprudent, especially when other documentaries have managed to feature the same footage commented on by experts who can clarify its origins and purpose.

Otherwise, viewers who recall Abderrahmane Sissako’s excellent 2014 Oscar-nominated feature, Timbuktu, will be surprised to see a number of sequences in the opening reel of Salafistes that closely resemble scenes from that movie, and are also set in a Malian city that's been taken over by Islamist fighters.

As revealed by Le Monde in December, Sissako was originally involved in fellow Mauritanian Ould M. Salem’s project, until pulling out for administrative reasons. Yet he wound up adapting lots of the footage — such as a sharia execution of a local fisherman convicted of murder, a scene of an old villager defiantly smoking his pipe and a sequence of jihadists hunting gazelles with Kalashnikovs — into his fictional version.

Whether or not he should have properly credited the documentary is a moral (and possibly legal) question, but if there’s one thing that becomes clear after placing the two side-by-side, it’s that Salafistes goes to extremes to reveal the horrors of everyday life under jihadi rule, while Timbuktu manages to turn such horrors into art.   

Production companies: Margo Cinema, France 3 Cinema

Directors: Lemine Ould M. Salem, Francois Margolin

Editors: Camille Lotteau, Olivier Jacquin

Composer: Ali Farka Toure

In French, Arabic, English, Bambara

71 minutes