Documentary Review: French Filmmaker seeks to understand “Jihadists”


At one point in the French documentary “Jihadists,” a snippet of an ISIS recruiting video sends us hurtling down the highways and streets of Iraq, as the “fighters” inside randomly shoot-up cars full of people, pedestrians on the street, all as a dream catcher dangling from the rear view mirror of their SUV bounces hither and yon in bloody irony.

Coming near the end of this “their beliefs, prejudices, goals and practices, in their own words” film, one can be forgiven for throwing up your hands, asking “What can we do with such barbarians?” Aside, of course, from forcing some reduced in number 1.5 billion Muslims to bow to the radioactive cinders of what once was Mecca five times a day in prayer.

But that’s not what co-director Francois Margolis, who appears on camera several times in the film to explain himself and his movie, has in mind. The film, titled “Salafistes” in France and other countries which know what that Sunni movement represents, is Margolis and co-director Lemine Ould M. Salem’s attempt to “listen to what these people say. They are not crazy… They are not isolated…They have an ideology.”

He set out to find “the people who have decided to wage war on us…an important minority in Islam,” and talk to them where THEY were in control, in areas of Mali, Tunisia and Mauritania where Islamic jihadists run the show and Sharia Law is the only law that matters.

Tracking down Imams and Islamic police, militia leaders and rabid adherents in Africa via Facebook and Twitter, escaping the clutches of Boko Haram despite making an effort to include the Nigerian fanatics and electing not to go to ISIS territory “because we would have been killed,” Margolis and Salem got unfiltered versions of the beliefs that gave birth to the attacks on 9/11, on Britain and Spain and France’s “Charlie Hebdo” magazine.

They say what they really believe, really think and really plan to do “in safety,” Margolis says. And then the screen goes black with a quote Guy Debord — “Shame should be made even more shameful by making it public.” There’s nothing as damning as letting cranks explain themselves, giving their beliefs as they understand them.

As this or that leader of the various movements “Jihadists” visits and hears out declares “International opinion is of no concern to us,” the film’s “real” audience becomes clearer. They’re trying to reach Muslims “who do not think like this,” who are embarrassed to be tarred with the same brush that murderous extremists “who long for (an idyllic Islamic) past that probably never existed.” And they’re trying to show we Westerners why what we’ve been doing to combat this ideology hasn’t worked.

We ride around on a moped with AK-47-armed “Islamic Police” in Timbuktu, forcing women to put on their veils, cracking down on smoking and other vices they deem “not allowed by the Prophet.”

A man, his face covered by a hood, admits (in French and Arabic, with English subtitles) “I am here because of Bavaria.” A can of beer got him arrested.

An accused murderer is executed because the mother of his victim refused to forgive him, the judge shrugs. And we see lashes administered to this accused wrongdoer, or a hand lopped off (not on camera) of an accused thief.

A cleric named Hamada As-Shinqiti explains why a married male adulterer “will be stoned to death,” but a single man will only receive “100 lashes,” a lighter sentence which he then tries to explain “biologically.”

We hear from Omar Old Hamaha of  the Timbuktu group Ansar al-Sharia, a  55 year-old college-educated jihadist fluent in French and Arabic, remembering the “divine intervention” that made him a jihadist.

He takes a literal passage of the Prophet’s edicts and dyes his beard red “to contradict (Confound?) the Jews and the Christians.”

Hamaha marvels at the “paradise” he and his armed, ruthless comrades have created in “the minaret of Islam” (Timbuktu’s motto).

“Sin all over the world. Discos, debauchery, music everywhere. Now, there is no more beer drinking, even little girls in Gao wear veils.”

One articulate Salafiste mullah, fighter or Imam after another gives his interpretation of the Koran and the will of the The Prophet, explaining away the sexism, the patriarchy of the culture, the violence.

“Here, there were alcohol sellers,” a young tour guide notes. “We used to preach in the mosques, and then went out into the streets ” to spread the word. It wasn’t until “we took up arms” that they were able to impose their will on the nation.

“There’s no more sin now!”

“Jihadists” makes for a fascinatingif talking-head heavy indictment of a myopic ideology that claims “We just want to be left to ourselves” to do as they see fit “in our own lands.” Sharia Law, enforced by armed thugs and justified by narrow-minded, selective, context-twisting clerics, is what they want — Saudi Arabia without the trappings of wealth or feigned concern with what the West thinks about their Sharia State repression.

A young Muslim man sees this version of Islam as “a new religion. We follow it because what the force says is what you do.”

“There is no opposition” in these corners of the world, Margolis explains. Conformity and intolerance of criticism of The Prophet and his faith are enforced by the Men with Guns.

As we see accused homosexuals tossed from the roof of a Mosul, Iraq hotel (an ISIS video), watching stonings and canings and see propaganda videos of Westerners as they’re about to be murdered by ISIS, as various Africans Margolis and Salem interview ponder the idea of going to ISIS lands where at long last “the caliphate” has been reestablished, the viewer begins to grasp that this violently intolerant, nativist/quasi-nationalist conservatism merely puts the Jihad movement ahead of the global curve on “Making Arabia/Africa/Syria Great Again” timeline.

“What is my problem with democracy?” one educated young Imam laughs in a moment that abandons “shame” and zeroes in on mockery. It’s the secularism of voting rights, and the fear that “What if the people decide wine is allowed?”

We in the West may be enraged at the smug “America got what it deserved/’Charlie Hebdo got what it deserved” declarations. It’s hard to cling to the idealism of tolerance for others’ beliefs when those beliefs are slaughtering in the name of a religion they believe can never be criticized, questioned or ridiculed.


There is virtually nothing in the line of contrary local or Islamic voices, criticizing or critiquing the value system and twisted “morality” of the jihadists. That’s mostly left to Margolis himself. That’s a shortcoming of this “in their own words” film.

And as Margolis discusses his reasons for making the film, the family he lost in the Holocaust, a vow of “never again,” any Muslim who’d care to dismiss his movie can say, “He’s a Jew,” followed by more invective of the type we’ve heard throughout “Jihadists.”

“We cannot have compassion as they are not innocent people, insulting The Prophet…They have only one destiny on Earth, to be hated.”

But as one dogmatic true believer declares “I only believe what can be proven!” and we remember how little of any supernaturalist religion can actually be “proven,” as one more young believer wishes for the chance to make the journey to join ISIS, as another Westerner appears on an ISIS video and blames the West for the state of bloodstained state of the Middle East, as yet one more young cleric spits out George W. Bush’s blundering use of “crusade” back at us with the cleric’s Muslim victimhood interpretation of the Crusades (which followed Islamic expansion by the sword across the Middle East), the viewer cannot help but embrace the point of “Jihadists.”

Getting Islam to shout down the murderous cranks in its ranks is far more likely to work against such movements than all the bombs and bullets and bloodshed that’s been tried thus far.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits: Directed by Francois Margolis, Lemine Ould M. Salem. A Cinema Libre release.


Running time: 1:12

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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