While Charlie Hebdo returned to Parisian newsstands with a defiant image of a contrite Mohammad emblazoned on its cover, Timbuktu, a much-praised, Oscar-nominated movie by the internationally known Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako was unceremoniously yanked out of a theater in the Paris suburb, Villiers-sur-Marne.
The district, which has a large North African population, is the birthplace of Hayat Boumeddiene, the fugitive companion of the perpetrator of the Hyper Cacher massacre Amedy Coulibaly. The town’s mayor Jacques-Alain Bénisti (a member of the Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement) first called the movie, which he had not seen, “an apology for terrorism” and then had it removed Friday from the Cinema City Casino because he feared that young people might take the jihadists for a model.
In fact, Sissako’s point, impossible to miss, is that the first victims of jihadism are Muslims. Far from idealized, the jihadists are shown as brutal enemies of Malian tradition and culture. This exquisitely photographed movie bluntly details a jihadist reign of terror, including the implementation of sharia law, in an idyllic village in northern Mali—a region where, for much of 2012, Islamic fundamentalists, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, held sway. (Last January, the French army intervened and fighting in concert with Malian troops, retook the Islamist strongholds, including the ancient city of Timbuktu. Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita marched arm in arm with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of the massive unity march through the French capital last Sunday.)
Timbuktu was premiered last May at Cannes and released in Paris last month. According to its distributor Jean Labadie noted that the movie had already been shown in more than 1,500 French cities “without causing the slightest incident.” Under pressure from social media and the Socialist opposition, Bénisti revised his position, telling Le Monde that Timbuktu would be rescheduled in two weeks and shown in the context of a debate featuring Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders “et pourquoi pas, if they wish, members of the film crew.” The day before Timbuktu was banned in Villiers-sur-Marne, the French government declared that Lassana Bathily, the 24-year-old Malian stock clerk at the Hyper Cacher, who successfully hid a dozen or more customers in the market’s basement freezer, would be given French citizenship.
Timbuktu opens in New York on January 28.
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J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.