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France Censors Salafists Documentary

PARIS – A new French documentary that gives voice to some Salafist groups in North Africa has been struck with a ban for under-18s for watching it, sparking a debate about freedom of expression.

The decision was “deaf, blind and stubborn” and amounted to “shameful censorship,” French director and writer Claude Lanzmann wrote on Le Monde’s website, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Wednesday, January 28.

The documentary “Salafists” opened on Wednesday in only five cinemas in France.

It mostly focuses on extremism in the Sahel region of North Africa and was filmed in Mali, Tunisia, Mauritania and Algeria between 2012 and 2015.

It gives voice to leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and religious leaders belonging to the Salafist movement.

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The film shows daily life under Shari`ah law in the northern Mali cities of Gao and Timbuktu which fell under the control of Al-Qaeda affiliates in 2012.

It is interspersed with images of Islamic State group propaganda and videos, some of which are extremely violent.

The film’s portrayal of bloody images of the so-called Islamic State has seen its directors accused of “flirting with advocating terrorism”.

The controversy headlined the front page of the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper which said the film was “violent and ambiguous and flirts with advocating terrorism”.

Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin took the advice of the national commission to bar under-18s from seeing the film, a rare move for a documentary.

She said her decision was the result of the documentary makers “broadcasting scenes and talk of extreme violence without commentary”.

The directors, Francois Margolin and Mauritanian journalist Lemine Ould Salem, have said they wanted to show the jihadists’ discourse in parallel with the reality of their acts.

“Our aim was to show the Salafists from the inside,” Margolin told AFP in December, saying the minority school of thought was increasingly influential and a gateway to becoming a jihadist.

However, an editorialist in Le Figaro said the film missed its mark “and ends up bringing together what it intends to fight — Salafist propaganda.”

The director Lanzmann, who made the 1985 Holocaust film Shoah, described “Salafists” as “a genuine masterpiece, illuminating daily life under Sharia law in a way that no book or ‘expert’ of Islam, ever has.”

Film critic Jean-Michel Frodon wrote on the French version of the Slate website that the film “gives a voice to the ‘enemy’. But giving him a voice, is to know him better.”