Dir. Daniel Leconte. 2008.France. 119 mins
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press versus religious grievances are explored to edifying effect in It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks. This lively, intelligently-structured documentary chronicles the suit brought by Muslim organisations against French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo after the irreverent paper, famed for its own stable of political cartoonists, published 12 allegedly-insulting Danish cartoon interpretations of the Prophet Muhammad. Two of the original cartoons plus the French paper’s cover design were singled out as being allegedly racist by the plaintiffs.
This dense, Daniel Leconte-directed documentary boasts eloquent protagonists, high stakes and a certain measure of suspense: will the values of a secular democracy whose law on free speech dates back to 1789 trump broader fears of upsetting Islamic fundamentalists’
Leconte filmed key players in the drama before, during and after the trial (although not actually inside the courtroom) and the result is sure to enjoy a prolonged theatrical life in France. Elsewhere, it will probably be restricted to festival programmers and specialised TV channels worldwide. Journalism and law schools should make a copy part of their libraries.
First published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in late September of 2005 as The Faces of Muhammad, the cartoons sparked no immediate protests. The collection was subsequently ‘embellished’ by persons unknown who tacked on insulting images designed to antagonise fundamentalist Muslims - a tactic that worked. Danish flags were burned, products boycotted, embassies and consulates assaulted.
European Union officials disassociated the EU from the debacle, putting the blame squarely on the Danes. To illuminate the fuss, French daily France-Soir ran the 12 cartoons on February 1, 2006 with the headline ‘Yes, God Can be Caricatured.’ A week later, Charlie Hebdo ran the series of cartoons with a front page illustration of a sad Muhammad, turbaned head in his hands. The headline ‘Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists’ was accompanied by a thought bubble in which the Prophet laments: ‘It’s hard being loved by jerks.’
In his documentary, Leconte records the spirited newsroom process of picking the cover of the issue that eventually sold some 400,000 copies — over twice the customary print run.
Although France-Soir and L’Express also published the cartoons, only Charlie Hebdo and its editor Philippe Val ended up on trial.
Several interviewees strongly imply that the suit originated at the highest government levels to send a conciliatory signal to the Arab world, thus protecting French investments and French citizens abroad. Val deplores creeping media self-censorship and luminaries such as Shoah director Claude Lanzmann warn that if the plaintiffs prevail, France will never be the same.
The French love of debate is on permanent display here as participants on both sides of the story hold forth. lnterviewees are clearly identified each time they speak, but non-French audiences may, understandably, be unaware of how much cultural weight certain individuals carry in the public arena.
By bringing charges against Charlie Hebdo, the plaintiffs brought into the open a crucial debate from which French society emerged stronger. Unless you’re an active member of the Taliban, that’s a happy ending.
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Main cast (interviewees)
Anne de Fontette