A cursory Google search for ‘Charlie Hebdo’ reveals that the satirical magazine continues to fly dangerously close to the sun. Less than a week since the Sinai plane crash, a cartoon equating debris falling from the wrecked fuselage with the continuation of Russia’s bombing of ISIS has sparked a predictably vehement backlash. The controversial, polemical publication has historically disregarded the line between keeping a finger on the pulse of current affairs and stabbing a nerve with the sharp end of a pencil.
Documentary Je Suis Charlie (2015), crafted by father and son Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte, details the cause and effect of the fateful attack that saw many in Charlie’s midst gunned down. It is a fitting and respectful eulogy to those whose lives were lost but a disappointingly paint-by-numbers depiction. Whilst proffering some broader contextualisation, it is very much the finished article one would expect, lacking the guile of its daring protagonists. Oscillating around the 11th January demonstration which saw thousands of Parisians take to the streets in the name of free speech and to decry the events of four days previously, grainy camcorder footage and interviews take us back in time. In 2007, legal proceedings were brought against Cabu, Charb, Tignous et al for illustrations of the Prophet Mohammed which did more than ruffle a few feathers.
Feeling that accusations of racism were unjustified given their secularism and in the firm belief that their cartoons depicted extremists rather than all of Islam, the self-proclaimed atheists did not lay down their weapons, eventually winning the case. Well aware of the ever-thinning ice on which they skated, the men and women of Charlie Hebdo continued in the same vein until it could support them no longer. In numerous interviews the surviving members of the editorial team recall with agonising detail the events of 7th January. The first-hand accounts are extremely moving, especially that of ‘Coco’ (Corinne Rey) who – with a gun to her back – was responsible for entering the code that opened the doors of the newsroom. Traumatised by the murders this decision facilitated, her testimony is tremendously courageous. The frequent narration by Leconte père often descends into platitudes of liberté, egalité, fraternité, and although Elisabeth Badinter and a fellow philosophy professor raise the issues of Islamisation and ongoing anti-Semitism in France it is too superficial to carry much weight.
One of Je Suis Charlie‘s strengths is in pointing fingers outwards. Where was the world’s media prior to the tragedy? Why were so-called colleagues – Nouvel Observateur in particular – so quick to turn their back and even suggest the Charlie Hebdo victims deserved what happened to them? And why, within a matter of days, did so many Facebook warriors abandon the cause? If anything, the Lecontes’ film is a reminder of the hypocrisy of which many, this reviewer included, are guilty. Like trying to explain Only Fools and Horses to a non-Brit, the significance that the dessinateurs of Charlie Hebdo held, and continue to hold, in the French psyche is not easy. A late anecdote of Cabu’s celebrity status among a group of Toulouse schoolchildren does not do enough to open out Je Suis Charlie to a foreign audience. Worth watching more for its material than its execution, hopefully the Lecontes’ doc will prevent the memory of the pioneering journalists lost from becoming yesterday’s news.
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