Cinema Libre reached out to me and asked me to review their new documentary Jihadists. It’s a powerful and moving film that documents the actions and lives of members of Islamic extremist groups in Northern Africa.
This is a review of a documentary. More information about the documentary can be found here. If you’re tempted to go and watch the documentary yourself I will say this: it’s an important subject, the documentary is fantastic, but there is disturbing content and disturbing language in the movie. I want people to go and see it themselves, I just also want viewers to recognize that this documentary is for mature audiences. There are interviews where jihadists talk about the importance of asceticism followed by depictions of extreme violence, scenes where enforcers of Sharia law are describing how they treat people with respect followed by a video of a young person getting lashes and crying out in pain.
What Is Cinema Libre?
Cinema Libre is an independent cinema group that focuses on producing and distributing high concept narratives and social issue nonfiction cinema. Since 2003 the studio has released over 150 titles and has worked with dozens of independent filmmakers building relationships all over the world to facilitate the distribution of vital and educational cinema as well as creating opportunities for audience members to sit down and chat with filmmakers discussing a range of social issues and modern topics.
What is Jihadists?
Jihadists is a look into the world of Islamic terrorism in Northern Africa. It follows the work of Lemine Ould Salem, a Mauritanian Muslim journalist and Francois Margolin a French film producer and director. The purpose of the film is to show the world what it’s like to live in Jihadist controlled land and document extensive interviews with actual extremists about their beliefs.
Francois says he began to meet extremists after the death of President Anwar el-Sadat, who led Egypt from late 1970 until late 1981 when he was murdered by fundamentalists in the Egyptian army. Some of the first he met were in Egypt and then he met more in Afghanistan fighting against the Soviets in the 80s. He’s also made more than one film documenting Islamic extremists, one of his other films is named The Opium of talibans and came out in 2001 at the FIPA Festival. That film showed life in the Taliban and documented among other things drug use among that particular group of jihadists.
Francois has an understanding of extremists of all sorts that is likely unpopular but needs to be heard and understood: to call extremists crazy is to misunderstand extremism and honestly (and quite frustratingly) makes fighting against them effectively much harder. He also rightfully says that these people are Muslims, and equally importantly says that they represent a small but dangerous minority within the religion (which is a claim many often wrongfully push back against instead of rightfully acknowledging that Islam like Christianity can have many forms, some peaceful and progressive and others conservative and potentially even dangerous to both outsiders and insiders to those specific forms of the religions).
Francois is also cognizant of the risks he and his partner and their crew took in going to places like Timbuktu and territory where other extremist groups like Boko Haram are operating openly and boldly to Sousse, Tunisia. He felt the need to do this to be able to document the true and bold thoughts of jihadists throughout the region because he knew if he worked in ECOWAS countries or countries and cities where there were open warfare and consistent resistance to extremists than he wouldn’t be able to get those he interviewed to speak freely, openly, and perhaps even calmly.
Towards the middle of the documentary, it takes a turn from showcasing regular members of jihadi groups to showcasing Islamic Imans and other types of thinkers & Islamic scholars in extremist circles and extremist groups. These men talk about conspiracy theories ranging from antisemitism to the idea that it was “the West” that invented democratic Islam despite the fact that the Caliph in Sunni Islam is or at least originally was an elected position. It’s really important that people hear from Islamic extremists what it is that Islamic extremists want and think and this documentary does a fantastic job of showcasing that.
Thoughts On Jihadist:
There’s a lot to learn during this documentary. I watched it multiple times which is why it took me a bit longer than anticipated to write this review. Some of the stuff I noticed really caught me off guard. For instance, the film doesn’t just interview members of various extremist groups. Some of the interviewees are regular people who were living in the areas taken over by extremists and have now adapted to the rules and expectations of the radicals who’ve taken over their communities. One fairly young man says that “it’s like living as a member of a new religion” after mentioning that his parents were Muslim and he himself is Muslim but the form of Islam practiced by the extremists in the city is massively different from the form of Islam that he believes in or possibly believed in. He talked about life during Ramadan before the extremists came and after they did and the differences are massive which is something people should realize and be cognizant of when they are talking and thinking about both life in Africa and life in places like Central America.
One of the bits that really caught my eye happened towards the end with a Salafist in Tunisia discussing how he runs the Salafist equivalent of Girl Defined’s website, where he talks about fashion, superheroes, hanging out with his fellow Salafists, and more and some articles were even Buzzfeed style listicles including “16 indispensable objects to have before arriving in Syria” and “15 camouflage jackets with hoods” like he’s running a YouTuber merch website.
We’ve been conditioned to think about extremists in an inaccurate way and as a result of that whenever we contemplate comparing extremists to non-extremists we get a jarring mental image and that’s part of the problem that we have combating extremists in the modern world. We think of them as incompatible with the modern world, we imagine them hunched over in caves talking to each other on old-timey radios but in actuality, they do much of the same things that we do, they even visit the same websites, use the same apps, and create memes using the same basic templates. We don’t understand extremists so even when we succeed in killing them or otherwise removing them from power we don’t understand how to stop future extremists so they keep coming back. And the reality is that smarter members of these communities know that someone could fight them online effectively, the same man who runs the modern lifestyle Salafist site said that it could be fought or promoted online depending on someone’s beliefs.
Jihadists is an important film. I cannot stress enough the need for people who care about understanding extremism and combating it to watch this documentary. And if you ask me if you don’t care about understanding extremism I’m gonna be a bit skeptical about how much you care about defeating it. Understanding it, looking at extremists accurately and honestly is an important step to understanding the appeals of extremism of various sorts and ultimately defeating those forms of extremism in ways that weaken their ability to rise from the ashes and corrupt more people. I am incredibly thankful that Cinema Libre gave me an opportunity to contribute my thoughts to their film.
Extremism will not fade away just by applying force over and over again. Extremists fight humanistic ideas and activists not just on the battlefield but in people’s hearts and minds. Extremism does not weaken when an extremist dies, it weakens when extremists and/or their sympathizers are convinced of the validity of other viewpoints which is a lot harder to do than to kill them and some might say that it can’t be done but even if individual extremists can’t be changed back the work must be done to show people that extremism is not the path that advances the human condition. We cannot cede this basic understanding of where the real battle is to extremists. And strawmanning them doesn’t help us combat them either. We can and should listen to them and debate them when we can do so safely, show their ideas to be intellectually, morally, and socially bankrupt before we have to take up arms against them. At the end of the day that is how we ensure that extremists never win their battle, we constantly meet them and defeat them first on the rhetorical battlefield long before they have the sympathy and support needed to plunge society into a civil or international conflict of arms and blood.
If you watch any film in January of 2019, or in February of 2019 make it this one.