Reviewed by Justine Benanty
"333” is a beautifully created documentary film about the largely unknown but very rich history of the democratic nation of Mali, its ancient manuscripts, and a group of scholars called the Ambassadors of Peace, whose time has come but not a moment too soon. While the film’s cinematography is extraordinary, it is the subject matter centered around a country on the brink of losing their cultural heritage forever that captures the imagination and tugs at the heartstrings.
The film opens in a small, unremarkable library somewhere in the northwestern African country of Mali. Two scholars fill the screen, and we see several age-old manuscripts being scrutinized. In the background we hear the commanding baritone voice of Mali’s Ambassador to the United States, declaring “We will live on this earth for a long time, again.”
At that moment, we are reluctantly transported to San Francisco in the United States, where we encounter Issa Muhammad, an intense and persuasive Malian émigré who speaks dramatically about the confounding material comforts compared with the majesty of knowing God. Dressed in suit and tie, he has been Americanized in attire, if not in thought. Issa muses that he is dressed on the outside but missing his sanctity within. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses his internal struggle between assimilation and his faith.
Issa’s longing to return to his Maker transports us back to Mali, traveling on makeshift sand-and-mud- crusted roads leading to who-knows-where, burnt by the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert sun. We gaze at the motorcade, knowing it will face severely oppressive conditions ahead. The rough-and-ready caravan is comprised of nearly half a dozen desert-ready Jeeps, cruising across the desert’s intimidating roads faced with sunbaked tiny pebbles. Determined and decisive, the vehicles demand us to believe that they will get to their destination, somehow, sometime. When one of the vehicles suffers a flat tire, a motley group of menfolk gathers, flaunting firearms and ammunition slung from their darkened, hardened bodies turn out to be friends of the crew on a mission of protection.
Now back in action, the journey continues apace, but with ever more impasses and gridlocks. They eventually arrive at a Tuareg village, with children and adults adorned in flamboyant desert garb. Juxtaposed against the muted desert setting, their colors are electrifying and personalities animated.
We learn here about the nomadic lifestyles of the Tuareg peoples and their dependency on the land. Thus, they cannot disrespect or abuse the land, which is their core source of survival. This is a content and loving community determined to protect one another and their heritage. We learn that some of these Tuaregs are lifelong Ambassadors of Peace.
To become an Ambassador of Peace requires early and sustained commitment. Before reaching his/her fifth birthday, each candidate must pledge to study under the direction of a sole teacher for a period of thirty-five years. By the time these kids have reached their tenth birthdays, they will speak several languages and they must be able to recite the Koran by memory. And by the time these scholars have reached the age of forty, they must have mastered jurisprudence. Then, they go out into the streets as beggars to master humility. At that point, if they are in total harmony with Allah (the Arabic name for God), then they are declared “Ambassadors of Peace” for life.
We learn a great deal about Islam and the Tuareg nomads throughout the film but I will not share all of the details here because I do not want to diminish your enjoyment of seeing the film. What I will tell you is that these Tuaregs are Sufis, the mystical sect of Islam whose entire lives are dedicated to the purification of their thoughts and actions -- entirely different from the Islam that Westerners have been taught by various international media sources. We also unearth the truth about fatwas and jihads, learn that Jews and Christians are honored by Muslims as peoples of the Book, and so much more.
“333” is filled with a variety of music, including jazz, classical, and Malian rock. Not only will the film make you weep, but also the story it tells outlasts the film's ending. The classical score was composed by David Amram, the first in-house composer under Leonard Bernstein in New York’s Philharmonic Hall, who also composed scores for the first “Manchurian Candidate,” starring Frank Sinatra, and for “Splendor in the Grass,” starring Natalie Wood (see the Malian Manuscript Foundation Website). The Malian band, Tinariwen, a Grammy-Award-winning group of Tuareg musicians involved with a prior insurgency, was an opening act for the Rolling Stones, and contributed markedly to the rock-n’-roll music heard in “333.”
“333” was filmed by multi-Emmy-Award-winning photojournalists, and its Sound Design was shaped by an Academy-Award-winning engineer. All the filmmakers are outstanding pros who deserve much kudos.
Jam-packed with the colorful sights, sounds and emotions of the Malian people, “333” gives light to a stunning legacy of education, unrivalled anywhere, anytime. Once you have seen this film, you will want to save and preserve Mali’s ancient manuscripts for future generations.
Mali’s rich but often speckled history is detailed thoughtfully throughout the film, from the time when its streets were supposedly paved with gold, to the abject poverty that plagues Mali’s inhabitants today. In seeing this film, we recognize that the waning of nations is a widespread dilemma. Yet “333” shines its beacon on Mali’s stable democracy despite all the crazy machinations that Malians have endured. This documentary’s journey follows Issa in his search for enlightenment, but it is we who become enlightened.
This film is not for the non-thinkers or the dimwitted; it does not pull punches but penetrates disarmingly into the depths of our souls, demanding that peace on earth be achieved NOW. The good news is that it tells us how to do it.
If you care about the ongoing existence of humanity, do not miss seeing “333” for it will change your heart, change your mind, and change your life.
Leiden University Ph.D. Candidate: Centre for Global Heritage & Development
Associate Researcher: Slave Wrecks Project
Co-founder & Creator: ArchaeoVenturers
Program Evaluator, Instructor, & Mentor: Youth Diving With a Purpose
Church Affiliation: St. Charles Borromeo Church, Brooklyn Heights, NY