A scene from “Timbuktu.” The film was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, but a French mayor banned, then delayed its screening, citing fears that it would inspire sympathy for jihadists. (Cohen Media Group via AP)

“Timbuktu” was widely regarded as one of the gems of the Cannes Film Festival, drawing praise from the New York Times and Variety. It’s been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday called the movie “a superbly crafted story of the jihadist invasion of Mali that manages to be both urgently of its era and timeless.”

The film is unambiguously anti-jihadist.

But last week, Jacques-Alain Bénisti, the mayor of a Paris suburb, tried to ban a screening of “Timbuktu.” He feared “that the movie makes an apology for terrorism,” reported Le Figaro. According to Le Monde, Bénisti thought that young people would see the jihadists in the film as role models. Bénisti, a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, initially sought to have the film’s screenings canceled last week. Bénisti is the mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne, the birthplace of Hayat Boumediene, the fugitive common-law wife of Amedy Coulibaly, one of the men who attacked a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris on Jan. 9. Villiers-sur-Marne is home to a large North African population.

In the wake of the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, media worldwide rallied in support of the magazine and its staff, citing the importance of free speech, but Bénisti acted quickly to ban “Timbuktu,” though he admitted he had not seen the film. Tablet magazine was quick to condemn Bénisti for not extending the same courtesy of free speech to “Timbuktu.”

Here’s Hornday’s description of the movie, which she called “an unvarnished portrait of impunity”:

Featuring a cast of Mali musicians, the film revolves around a nomadic family that has largely steered clear of the cruel and arbitrary rule of the Arabic-speaking invaders who have laid claim to the city. After an accidental death, however, they come to witness first-hand the perversion of Islam that has taken hold in a country once known for its gorgeous music and flowering culture.

Both the music and culture of Mali are in abundant supply in Sissako’s lush production, although they are violently quashed by gruesome punishments that at one point involves burying a couple up to their necks, then stoning them to death.

The musicians are Muslim.

Recently, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari took to Twitter to push back against assuming all those who practice the Muslim religion are terrorist sympathizers unless they immediately and loudly condemn the actions of extremists. Bénisti was criticized by those who thought his initial actions demonstrated a similar sentiment.

Ansari assailed Rupert Murdoch after the media titan tweeted, “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”

Ansari responded,”Rups can we get a step by step guide? How can my 60 year old parents in NC help destroy terrorist groups? Plz advise.” He continued, “Are you responsible for the evil s— all Christians do or just the insane amount of evil you yourself contribute to?”

Murdoch and Bénisti aren’t the only ones who have been criticized for as much. After the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks, CNN host Don Lemon asked his guest Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer  and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, if he supported the Islamic State. Bill Maher, whom UC Berkeley students were protesting in an effort to get him disinvited as the school’s commencement speaker because of what they consider to be his Islamophobia, resumed his criticism of Islam as a violent religion on his HBO show, “Real Time,” Friday night.

Writing for Slate France, Jean-Michel Frodo called Bénisti’s move “absurd” and “sadly predictable.”

The mayor later backpedaled after facing criticism from social media and Socialist opposition party operatives. He agreed to reschedule the screening, and include Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in a debate afterward. Bénisti said members of the film crew were welcome to participate, too. The film has been screened in 1,500 French cities without incident.

“I never wanted to cancel the screening of ‘Timbuktu,'” Bénisti told Le Parisien. “I just thought it was better to wait. This is what we will do.” The mayor continued: “Many relatives told me that scenes are closely reminiscent to those we have recently known. People are being coldly cut down by al-Qaeda members in the Islamic Maghreb.”

You can watch the trailer for “Timbuktu” below:

h/t Tablet Magazine