Film Review – An Artistic Window into the Horror of Islamic Fundamentalism

imagesCitizens and leaders of the Euro-Atlantic community are scared, and to some degree fascinated, by the rise, power and influence of fundamentalist islamic movements such Al-Qaeda, AQIM, and most recently with the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). These powerful networks are attracting Westerners, especially their young adults, to either join the fight in Syria, Mali, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan or even taking it to their homelands, like in Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, and in the Thalys. Westerners are trying to understand the logics and thought process of these networks. So far the narratives have been engrained in the traditional framework of us versus them, Christian versus Muslims, and the inevitable clash of civilization. The recent picture Timbuktu offers us an artistic look into one of these islamic networks, their ideologies, their contradictions, and the horrors perpetuated in the name of bigotry and oppression.

Aside from traditional hollywood mainstream pictures, Abderrahmane Sissako dug deep, his powerful Timbuktu (2014), into the darkness of an fundamentalist islamic movement ruling over Timbuktu, the historical Malian city and a scholarly centre in Africa. Sissako, a Mauritanian-born film-maker, decided to make this movie after hearing about a story of a unmarried couple being stoned to death by a fundamentalist islamists for having children outside of the sacred bound of marriage. This movie is, as titled by a Guardian’s article, ‘a cry from the heart,’ which shows the horror, stupidity, ignorance of radical islamists over the inhabitants of Timbuktu. However, the picture is much more than a basic criticism as it  confronts the viewers to a complex conundrum. Sissako is very careful in maintaining the humanity of these men fighting the jihad.

One of the most beautiful scenes of the movie is a group of young Malian playing soccer on a soccer field without a soccer ball. On a previous scene, a young Malian is being physically punished by the newly-established Islamic tribunal enforcing the Sharia law for owningTimbuktu 5 and playing with a soccer ball. The scene of soccer game, so well choreographed playing with a red sunset light and the yellow dust of the sand, offers one of the most stunning moments of the picture. While the youngsters are playing ‘virtual’ soccer, which includes corner kick, penalty kick and counter-attacks, two jihadists are riding in circle around the field on their motorcycle in order to assure that no soccer ball is being used. In some way, the game illustrates the limits of oppression and Sharia law. The soccer match offers a powerful moment demonstrating the power of the mind and the desire for freedom under oppression. One can compare this scene as one of the many examples written in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Throughout the movie, one cannot stop making connection with any authoritarian regimes, from the Nazis to the Soviets and so forth, about the basic concept of power and authority (reference to Foucault, Freud and other great thinkers can be undeniably made throughout the picture). Even though scenes of oppression and injustice are ever-present and make the movie difficult to watch at times, Sissako wanted to give humanity to the fundamentalist fighters, the jihadists, by showing their doubts, lack of convictions of their actions and beliefs, and their violations of their bans on the inhabitants. For instance, one leader continues smoking even though it’s forbidden; another one, in a moving scene, is dancing ballet-like; others are continuously talking about the best soccer players being Zidane, so on and so forth.

A large part of the success of ISIL and other group has been to attract muslims in joining the jihad either at home or abroad. A lot of emphasis in Western media has been done on the successful PR campaign of these groups recruiting in US, France, Britain either in person (in prisons and/or in mosques) or through social media (facebook, youtube, twitter and so forth). Sissako spends a look moment filming the making a video for recruitment, wherein the speaker, a young fighter, talks with a real lack of conviction about his past ‘sins’ being a smoker and a rap singer. The man, behind the camera whom is much older and clearly not from Mali (as it has been the case in most of these terrorist networks), is desperate by the lack of conviction of the young jihadist.

1214559_Abderrahmane-SissakoTimbuktu whom was nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture and for a New Regards at the Cannes Film Festival, was celebrated by receiving Césars Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director in February 2015. This movie offers the only artistic look into the horror of oppression, violence, power, and morality. It does respond to the growing interest, fear and fascination of Westerners about ISIS and alike networks.

For instance, a recent study produced by the Pew Research Center looking at the perceptions of global threats by citizens of the world demonstrates that ISIS is considered as the greatest threat in every members of the Euro-Atlantic community. ISIS is perceived as more dangerous than global economic instability and climate change.

Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. "Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger." Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]
Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

Interestingly enough, if climate change has been considered as a direct threat to humanity as whole for decades, ISIS was a non-factor two years ago. Al-Qaeda was the principal network since 2001. It is quite interesting to see that Westerners consider ISIS as a greater threat than climate change.

In the case of Mali, the French have been the only Western power to use their military2_TIMBUKTU force in order to protect Timbuktu and block the progression of the radical islamists. At the time of the 2012 American Presidential campaign, between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, only Mitt Romney acknowledged the growing threat taking place in Mali. When François Hollande launched Operation Serval 63% of the French citizens were in favor of the use of military force in order to maintain order in Mali, block the progression of radical islamists in Mali and throughout the Sahel region (read a previous analysis on Operation Serval here). A little later, President Obama provided assistance to the French army through transports and through intelligence gathering.

Timbuktu offers Westerners a needed look into the reality of oppression in the case of Mali. It falls in the same category of great movies looking at bigotry, power, oppression, violence, injustice and stupidity like Path of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. It confronts the viewer with contradictory emotions of anger and amazement. Dark as it is, Sissako’s core message of the unbreakable human spirit is an ode to hope.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Ida – A Regard into Europe’s Past and Present

ida_4

Pawel Pawlikowski directed a wonderful picture, Ida, nominated at the 2015 Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. Ida takes place in Poland in 1962 and follows a young mysterious woman, Anna, whom is ready to take her vows as a nun (read the review here). The mother superior at the convent tells her to visit her aunt Wanda before making her decision. She goes to Warsaw and meets her aunt, a judge, whom tells her that she was born jewish and her birth name was Ida. She learns as well that her parents were killed during World War two because of their religion and culture. At this point they decide to find the graves of her parents and indirectly confront their faith and past. This picture tells a compelling story engraved in deep themes related to European heritage such as war, communism, politics, religion, history, identities, memories and power.

ida_poster-620x353

Ida was shot in black and white making it so precise, net and pure thanks to splendid movements of camera and sumptuous angles. As explained by Pawlikowski, whom left Poland when he was 14 years old, making this movie in Poland in the 1960s was a way to reconstruct a Poland at “a time I [Pawlikowski] vaguely but very intensely remember. That was my childhood.” Pawlikowski’s imagined and reconstructed Poland gives a very romantic and timeless tone despite the darkness of the story.

Ida is more than ever relevant today considering the resurgent tone of anti-semitism flourishing and spreading all around Europe. One core theme of Ida is dying because of one’s religion. World War two was in some degree the paramount of the organized killing of Jews across Europe. Ensuing the Wannasse conference in January 1942, the Nazis leadership institutionalized the killing of ethnic groups, principally the Jewish people and Tsiganes. This conference provided the baseline for the policy of antisemitism known as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Since 1945 and the Nuremberg trials Europe as a whole has been dealing with this dark past and heritage. Most European countries were complacent and ind- and/or -directly involved in this genocide. The ghosts of the Final Solution have remained in Europe since then. Ida is a reminder.

Antisemitism in Europe and France in the 21st century

This question of antisemitism is reappearing in Europe and especially in France and Germany since the turn of the new century. The rise of extreme right wing parties – as well called populist or ultranationalist – and their acceptations as powerful political force have changed the political narratives and rhetorics. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, it seems that the gates have been opened and that European leaders and ruling parties are now superficially addressing this problem of antisemitism for too long ignored. Several elements should be analyzed about the question of islamophobia, antisemitism, and extreme rights in Europe and France.

First, on February 17th, 2015, the Council of Europe published a 52-page report about the rise of intolerance, racism, hate speech and violence against minorities in France. “The1259153771 council is concerned” said Nils Muižnieks, the commissioner of human rights for the Council of Europe, “about the decrease of tolerance and the increase of verbal assaults and hateful and discriminatory acts recorded in France.” M. Muižnieks went on in his presentation of the report arguing that “In recent years, there has been a huge increase in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic acts. In the first half of 2014 alone, the number of anti-Semitic acts virtually doubled, while the number of Jews leaving France for Israel tripled compared with 2012, which is a telling indication of their feeling of insecurity.”

In the Council’s report, he underlines that the intolerance and racism are not ephemeral, but are rather deeply ingrained. He adds that these acts are an illustration of the continuous and permanent decline of the ‘social contract’ and the principle of equality; in sum the welfare state and its basic virtue of tolerance related to the core value of fraternity. He calls national authorities to do more at the national level and implement a national action plan and severely condemned these daily discriminatory and racist behaviors.

Second, what about European public opinion? Is it all about political rhetorics? A second report, titled “Antisemitism in the French Public Opinion. New Understanding” (in French, L’antisémitisme dans l’Opinion Publique Française. Nouveaux Eclairages) published in November 2014, under the direction of Professor Dominique Reynié seeks to look at the segments of French public opinion sensitive to antisemitic sentiments (here is a link to a recent interview on French National Radio, France Inter). In the introduction, Prof. Reynié writes that the question of antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism is reappearing in democracies, in Europe and France. Even though there is nothing new, the preoccupation is about the renewal (le regain in French) since the 1990s, which required a clear attention and action (p. 5). He claims that there are several obvious factors such as: globalization, identity crisis of Western democracies, fear of the rise of new world powers, migration flux, societal malaise caused in part by failed integration policies (multiculturalism or assimilation), aging populations, economic and financial crisis (in Europe), and political crisis (in Europe with serious disillusionment with mainstream/traditional political parties and establishments).

However, the real contribution of the report, aside from the fact that antisemitism is shared across party lines from the extreme left to right, is that one element has been forgotten in explaining the rise of these extremist sentiments, the internet. Prof. Reynié argues that the internet offers a platform where people can express themselves in all impunity, without having to face the consequences of their actions and words (p. 6). Additionally the report shows that between 2000 and 2014, France has seen an increase by 91% of antisemitic acts (p. 7). The recent reports of acts of vandalism in French cemeteries were linked to antisemitic motives.

Source: Daily Mail
Source: Daily Mail

Undeniably, both reports coincide with the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen targeting journalists and Jewish people. As demonstrated in Reynié’s report and in other polls, Jews of Europe are being largely targeted and blamed for all Europe’s trouble. In the case of France, the extreme right – which is not as homogenous as believed and described – is seeing the rise of even more radical and racist sub-branches than the Front National.

The Front National is becoming, for better or worst, a mainstream party now accepted by a large segment of French and European population and by a group of right-wing politicians of the UMP (read here a lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine about the newly found respectability of the Party under Marine Le Pen). New parties, like the Réconciliation Nationale, led by French comedian Dieudonné and pseudo-intellectual Alain Soral are changing the bedrock of French political narrative. In the case of the Réconciliation Nationale, the party lines are multiple and contradictory: anti-zionism, anti-capitalism, anti-Europe, anti-bourgeois, leftist for labor policies, and rightwing conservative in political values. The rise of such party can be explained by the internet and social media. As argued in Reynié’s report, the internet has changed the way political communities are made and structured and allowed all types of rhetorics without impunities. In the case of the Dieudonné-Soral political union, the center-point is the website, Egalité&Réconciliation.

Some analysts have argued that the antisemitic sentiments in Europe is caused by Israel’s actions in the Middle East. However, it is difficult to take such argument seriously for several reasons: first, antisemitism has existed well before the creation of the state of Israel; and second, antisemites, as in the case of the Dieudonné-Soral union, are neither in support of Palestinian and Arab causes.

Ida – A Tail of Two Europes

How Ida and the rise of antisemitism in contemporary Europe can be compared? The main theme of Ida is a search of one’s identity. And in the current political chessboard of Europe, Europeans, and especially French in this article, are as well in search of their identities. Antisemitic sentiments have existed in most of Europe’s, and christian, history and continue to live on. Ida offers a wonderful look at several Europes: an historical Europe, one divided by the Wall between the Soviet Union and the West; and a present Europe in search of its identity and origins forcing to dig in the worst of its memories and realities. Today’s Europe is as divided as before, not by a physical Wall, but by an imagined-Wall between Europeans based on cultural-religious traditions and values.

Considering the odds of Ida winning the Oscars, the New Yorker writes “it’s hard to bet against the historico-politico-religious sanctimoniousness of ‘Ida.'” In his interview with the New York Times, Pawlikowski was asked about the warm receptions of his movie. “What seemed to have worked” he argued “is precisely that the film doesn’t try to explain things but actually draws the audience in at a very basic psychological and emotional level, and makes them feel as if they’re watching something timeless.” Even though the European construction is a political marvel, its dark historical root and heritage seem unfortunately timeless too.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).