Friday, January 23, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (4 of 4): It’s (Still) Hard Being Loved by Jerks

Charlie Hebdo’s then editor Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier (1967-2015), in 2012. (Photo by Fred Dufour)
“I prefer to die standing up rather than living on my knees.” Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), editor of Charlie Hebdo and one of the victims of the January 2015 terrorist attacks targeting him and his staff.
You cannot look at It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks (C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons, in French), the fine 2008 documentary that Daniel Leconte made about Charlie Hebdo and the lawsuit launched against it about ten years ago by various French and non-French Muslim groups, in quite the same light as when it first came out. Yet the issues and questions raised by this very perceptive film, revolving around the definition of racism versus legitimate satire, the rights of French citizens to not be offended stacked up against the values of the Republic where free speech, however offensive, is sacrosanct, and the intent behind the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, still apply today. Only now they’re overlaid with the blood of the victims of the shootings in the magazine offices, killed by those who not only opposed their freedom of speech and image but who felt they had the moral right, even a religious obligation, to silence it.

It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks opens with an apt reminder of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, killed in 2004 by an Islamist who objected to a short film he made, called Submission, which looked at the subjugation of women under Islam. In response, that heinous act prompted the editor of a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, to solicit cartoons that looked at the prophet Muhammad and Islam and its excesses in a critical light. The twelve chosen cartoons, which were published in 2005, prompted a violent Muslim backlash in some Arab countries but also galvanized some other newspapers to support Jyllands-Posten and its staff who had received death threats by republishing them. Charlie Hebdo, the long-running French satirical magazine went it one further, reprinting the Danish cartoons and commissioning a cover by famed cartoonist Cabu (one of the murdered victims in this January’s attacks in Paris) which showed Muhammad crying as he bemoans the fundamentalists killing in his name. The caption: "It’s hard being loved by jerks...."

Philippe Val in It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks
That Cabu cartoon and (only) two of the Danish cartoons led in turn to Charlie Hebdo and its (then) editor Philippe Val being sued by The Great Mosque of Paris, the World Muslim League and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France. The 2007 court case revolving around the trio of cartoons soon became a cause célèbre in France and Leconte’s film was there every step of the way, eavesdropping on the creation of the Cabu cover, hanging out in the courtroom corridors, speaking to the lawyers for both sides and the supporters who testified in court for or against the magazine and showcasing the often bitter emotions and arguments, non-violent for the most part, over what was being debated in court and the ramifications for the future of free speech in France if Charlie Hebdo lost the lawsuit. The documentary plays like a fast moving thriller – complete with outsize, larger-than-life characters, outrageous drawings and discussions that remain relevant to this day. But there are facts and arguments that go further than the seemingly non-contentious argument for freedom of speech, no matter whom it bothers and it is to Leconte’s credit that he doesn’t shy away from (most of) them, even in cases where Charlie Hebdo doesn’t look good or noble in the process.

Right from the start, in Toronto, at least in hindsight, the movie was deemed too hot to get the release it ought to have had. Though it closed the Cinefranco film festival in Toronto, it only played one week in a Toronto independent cinema chain in early 2009, the same one that was the first in the city to show The Interview. In light of Cineplex Odeon, Canada’s largest chain, deciding not to show the Seth Rogen comedy, I’m betting they passed on the Charlie Hebdo movie for the same reason. Yet, I have to admit that when a guy with a backpack sitting in the movie theatre left the cinema, I did entertain the thought that he could have been leaving a bomb behind. He came right back however, and though at the time I felt that I was being unduly paranoid, now – after what happened in Paris – I’m not sure that I was overreacting after all.

Watching It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks, less than two weeks after the massacre of 12 people at the magazine’s offices, you can’t help but be jolted by things that wouldn’t have made the same impression earlier. Some of the victims pop up in the movie at regular intervals, including during the editorial board meeting when Cabu (real name Jean Cabut) comes up with his cover; cartoonist Georges Wolinski, another of the victims, was also at that meeting. (Viewng the film now, it’s all too easy to imagine gunmen breaking in and shooting the journalists at that meeting, as they did on January 7 – a meeting not significantly different from the one shown in the film.) Charlie Hebdo columnist/economist Bernard Marais (identified in the film by his pen name ‘Oncle Bernard’), cartoonist Philippe Honoré, cartoonist Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), who later became editor of the magzine and cartoonist Tignous (Bernard Verlhac) – all victims of the 2015 attack – either comment on the case or are interviewed during the course of the film. Among the most prominent witnesses in defense of the magazine, one François Hollande, then First Secretary of the Socialist Party and now president of France. It’s good to see his words in favour of freedom of speech and preserving the values of the French republic are not hollow ones. He practices what he preached. Also popping up at the courthouse, anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who tries but fails to make the case that his prosecution for anti-Semitic utterances was comparable to what the Charle Hebdo folk were facing. Dieudonné was recently arrested for supporting terrorism when he compared himself to the gunman who killed four Jews in the attack on the kosher supermarket just after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Again, he and his supporters tried to link the comic and the magazine as equal victims of suppressed free speech, as odious a comparison as can be made. As the film demonstrates, the writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo are not racists attacking Islam for the sake of doing so or indulging in cheap shots at the religion. They’re hell bent at exposing the excesses of the fundamentalists who claim to speak for the prophet and not attacking Muslims specifically. As Claude Lanzmann, director of the momentous Holocaust film Shoah, says to reporters when appearing at the courthouse to testify for Val, “Charlie Hebdo is not inspiring hatred, it’s fighting those who inspire hatred.” Yet the magazine’s opponents try to twist the truth by implying that the jerks being lambasted by the prophet are Muslims in general and not fundamentalists in particular. And Nicolas Sarkozy, future president of France, who had once said that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were ‘provocative” (as if that’s a bad thing) and still harbours reservations regarding them, nevertheless changes his tune and in a telegram sent to the magazine opines that he prefers “an excess of caricature to an absence of caricature.” Typically, Philippe Val is not entirely thrilled that the right-wing Sarkozy, himself the subject of some scathing Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the past, has taken his side.
Jean "Cabu" Cabut (1938-2015) displays his cover for Charlie Hebdo, in It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks.

There are other indications that the talking points regarding Charlie Hebdo and its perceived anti-Muslim biases are not so clear cut. We find out that there are secular Muslims who have called the magazine with shows of support for its satirical stance and its right to have one though prominent Muslim critics of the fundamentalists, including Charlie Hebdo supporters, routinely receive death threats or are vilified for speaking out against them. And a prominent Imam from Marseilles is all set to testify for the magazine until he is pressured not to do so. Meanwhile, Abdelwahab Meddeb, a French Muslim intellectual who is testifying for Charlie Hebdo, while not taking issue with the bomb in the turban of Muhammad probably the most notorious of the Danish cartoons (Meddeb finds that aspect of the cartoon “amusing”) nevertheless feels that the way Muhammad is drawn is highly stereotypical, making him look lecherous, “a potential rapist” in a portrait not so far removed, says Meddeb, from anti-Semitic cartoons of yore. (That point of view is catnip for the plaintiffs' lawyer though he later has the tables turned on him when Father Michel Lelong, a priest supporting the plaintiffs, is revealed by Leconte to be a prominent supporter and apologist for Al-Manar, the anti-Semitic television station run by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. The channel has been banned by the U.S. and several European countries, including France.) But Muslim journalist, Mohamed Sifaoui, exiled from Algeria, defends the magazine for clearly lambasting those fundamentalists “who clearly pervert Islam.” Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Charb also defends the cartoons. “Everyone has a right to be shocked,” he says, adding that though he could be shocked by a Catholic sermon, that doesn’t give him the right to enter the church and beat up the priest or, conversely, if he were a Muslim, to go the mosque and slap an imam’s face. That’s an obvious point for those who wholly believe in freedom of speech but in today’s climate, and in the one prevailing in 2007 when the case came to court, it’s also a necessary one to make.

Mehdi Mozaffari, an Iranian political scientist exiled in Denmark and a witness for the French magazine, goes even further, opining that if Muhammad were alive today, he’d be very likely to use atomic weapons as part of his self-declared mission to spread Islam throughout the world. Val’s answer to that startling retort; “I think he goes too far. We never said that, but I find it reassuring to hear a Muslim say that.” The idea that Charlie Hebbo may at times show more respect for Muhammad then he perhaps deserves is not one broached by any of the magazine’s defenders or opponents. Clearly the lines drawn between defenders and critics of the satirical magazine are more than a little muddled.

The most outrageous moment in It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks, though, has to come when one of Charlie Hebdo’s lawyers, Richard Malka, re-enacts what he said in court France like many countries, including Canada, does not allow cameras in the courtroom when he gleefully challenged the plaintiffs, asking them if they really wanted equal treatment from the magazine. He then rattles off any number of editorials and cartoons assailing the Catholic Church from Val’s editorial titled "Welcome Pope Shit" (when Pope John Paul II visited France) to cries for people to defecate in the nation’s churches. There’s even one cartoon portraying the Pope as a denizen of gay bar backrooms. Leconte doesn’t show us any of them, however, but just lets Malka describe them, which strikes me as something of a cop out. Perhaps the folks at Charlie Hebdo didn’t want them shown on screen for fear of reminding some of their non-Muslim supporters of what they’ve been up to with their vicious portrayals of that religion. After all, the Pope – like Muhammad – is the holiest figure of them all.(Catholic organizations have sued the magazine a total of thirteen times.) But Malka’s clever point the very personification of chutzpah, I’d say is that, comparatively, the Muslims have it pretty good when it comes to being targeted within the pages of the magazine. The most moving moment in the film is when Val, asked about the charges made by another French magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, (now known as L'Obs), which did not reprint the cartoons, that he was fanning the embers of hatred with his cartoons, simply listed all the recent terror atrocities committed in the name of Islam, from the World Trade Center attacks in New York to the bombings of transit in Madrid and London and asked, almost plaintively, who was really spreading hatred here.

Philippe Val (centre) and company entering court.
It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks consistently shows the staff and creators of Charlie Hebdo wrestling with what their cartoons (and editorials) mean to the public at large and what they’re trying to accomplish with them, especially in how they will be perceived and received by the country’s large Muslim population. Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Riss, who was injured during the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo but survived, thinks the cartoons show the Muslim community that “they’re part of French democracy.” (Riss, real name Laurent Sourisseau, was appointed editor of Charlie Hebdo after Charb’s murder.) The contentious cartoons, says Philippe Val, can even be seen as a tool to help “integrate” them into French society so as to help them understand what the Republic stands for. That’s a fascinating proposition but when you hear an unidentified French Muslim man inside the courthouse, angrily declaiming that though his grandfather died in the trenches during WWI, for France, his grandchildren currently face discrimination throughout the country, you realize that that his emotional outburst is part of the larger French truth as well. So is the reality that the French government has often tried to censor Charlie Hebdo itself, through the courts, though not in the case depicted in the film. That impresses Val: not because the French prosecutor is on his side and that of free speech but because she is, finally, standing up for the values of the Republic. It's no accident that Charlie Hebdo was sued when two other French publications, France Soir and L’Express, which also published the Danish cartoons, were not. It also suggests that in highly secular France, at least, there were more courageous publications prepared to take on the Islamists by publishing the 'forbidden' Danish cartoons. What is most apparent in the movie is that if you actually think that Charlie Hebdo and its staff were ever racist towards and cavalier about Muslims and their religion, then you haven’t been paying attention.

It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks concludes triumphantly with Charlie Hebdo declaring victory when acquitted by the courts. Philippe Val remarks that this will likely mark the beginnings of a long required debate within the Muslim community, led by its secular and Republican members, on the issues of religion versus free speech and the camera, in the documentary’s final shot, lingers lovingly on the courthouse where it all transpired. (Sadly, it seems a more innocent time, in retrospect, when the courts, not guns, were the weapon of choice in France.) Well, that debate doesn’t really seem to have happened and, it should be noted, several Arab newspapers were banned and ten Arab journalists in three countries were jailed soon after for reprinting the Danish cartoons. As for the issues of Western freedom of speech that Charlie Hebdo stood for, obviously the magazine went on to and will continue to exercise that right its first cover after the attacks was captioned "All is forgiven" and showed an anguished Muhammad holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign  but because of the horrifying death toll this month, and the resultant refusal of so much of the world’s press to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, for fear of giving ‘offense’ to Muslims, that may be something of a Pyrrhic victory instead.

Dedicated to the memories of the 17 victims of the terror attacks in France.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be starting a new course on Feb. 6 entitled Ten Decades: The Movies that Mattered.  From Jan. 13 to Feb. 3 He will be giving four lectures on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television at the Bernard Betel Centre in Toronto.

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