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Review: Controversial documentary ‘Jihadists’ presents unfiltered views of hard-line fundamentalists

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Sharia Law Court Tribunal in the documentary “Jihadists.”
(Jihadists / Cinema Libre Studio)

What might your attempted indoctrination look like if you were kidnapped by radical Islamists? Or maybe your television viewing after sharia law took over your town? The documentary “Jihadists” from French filmmaker François Margolin and Mauritanian Muslim journalist Lemine Ould Salem, is a sort of answer: a context-free series of interviews with hard-line fundamentalist clerics and believers from sharia strongholds in Mali, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan, interspersed with propaganda videos of varying levels of queasiness and horror.

The filmmakers got unprecedented access to record the unfettered theories of militant Salafists — ultra-pious adherents who want to turn back the clock — and the result is unusual enough in its uncritical presentation that the film was nearly banned in France for coming off like propaganda itself. While there is a certain abject fascination in the unvarnished reality on display — everyday violence, unapologetic defenses of cruelty, killing and hatred wrapped in soft-spoken praising of God — the lack of an off-screen voice saying “Yeah, but …” is ultimately maddening.

Margolin, who has studied radical Islam for decades, occasionally appears at an edit bay to argue his movie’s approach, that this is an observed lesson revealing the inner workings of a vocal minority. To know what’s out there is valid, but why not narrate the counterarguments over his subjects’ words? Explain the tactics while showing a gruesome recruitment video? Margolin says we should “fight with ideas,” but “Jihadists” misses an opportunity to make vivid how that method of struggle would look.

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‘Jihadists’

In French, English, Arabic and Bambara with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 1, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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