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When two homegrown terrorists gunned down eleven employees of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo this past January, the blow it struck within the French mindset was as devastating as it was alarming, sending shockwaves through a country that now had its own unfortunate version of 9-11.
After a monumental display of public outrage, with millions taking to the streets and the slogan “Je suis Charlie” becoming a global phenomenon, certain questions began to arise: Did Charlie Hebdo cross the line with cartoons depicting, and sometimes mocking, the Prophet Muhammad? And did, as certain critics insinuated, its artists and writers target France’s Muslim population a few too many times, assaulting an underprivileged sector of society in the name of comedy and journalistic freedom?
Some, but not all, of these issues are dealt with in Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte’s Je suis Charlie (L’Humour a mort), a feature documentary that revisits what happened over those three deadly days in January, while exploring the work of cartoonists who used their scathing sense of humor to back an agenda that was secular, leftist, but definitely not racist in their eyes. Mixing revealing, and often amusing, archive footage with emotional testimony by staff members who survived the attack, Charlie is a potent enough effort to find an international following after its premiere in Toronto — even if its emotional effect is somewhat hampered by a pretentiously omniscient voiceover and an ill-advised, weepy score.
Although this is Gallic comic actor Emmanuel Leconte’s first stab at the helm, his father, Daniel, already made the 2008 doc It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks, which examined the 2007 legal case brought against Charlie Hebdo for reprinting “blasphemous” Danish cartoons, including one of Muhammad wearing a bomb for a turban. After Charlie was acquitted by a French judge, the magazine continued to defy both naysayers and death threats by publishing more drawings featuring Muslim characters. When their offices were firebombed in November 2011, editor-in-chief Charb refused to back down, claiming the assailants were “idiots who betrayed their own religion.”
The film flashbacks to these earlier events to provide context for the massacre, underscoring the fact that, while many in France were shocked by the vicious killings, no one was necessarily surprised: the Charlie staff constantly — and often gleefully — played with fire, willing to risk their lives for their work. “I knew I was breaking a taboo,” admits the well-loved Cabu when describing his 2006 cover for the issue featuring the Danish cartoons, while another victim, Tignous, reiterates that his drawings were not “serving a purpose” but simply there to criticize, satirize and makes us laugh.
Indeed, the film will be most telling for those who only know about Charlie Hebdo through the media, but have never taken the time to give it a read. Its cartoons can be scandalous for sure, yet they’re often thought-provoking and hilarious, lampooning politicians, business leaders, celebrities, and, more often than not, the Catholic Church. As the archives reveal, Charb, Cabu and the others were a giddy bunch that liked to both inflame and entertain, and they had a talent for using key issues of the day – immigration, social welfare, education – to underscore the hypocrisy of elites.
As one of the survivors explains, that talent was “destroyed, but not killed” by the January attacks, and some of the strongest sections of Je suis Charlie feature candid interviews with employees who were present during the shootings but managed to make it out alive. One of them, the cartoonist Coco, soberly describes how she encountered the terrorists on her way out for lunch, then was forced at gunpoint to open the door of the offices, knowing it would signal doom for her fellow workers.
The jarring testimony is contrasted by scenes of demonstrations that broke out almost immediately following the assault, and then lasted for well over a week. While the image of so many Parisians marching in unison is a powerful sight to behold, the recurrent voiceover by Leconte pere undercuts any emotion with its grandstanding speeches about liberty and democracy, while the bellowing music by Serge Besset (A Cat in Paris) resorts to the worst kind of Hollywood-style tearjerking.
Neither of those is needed in a film whose subjects speak for themselves, whether on camera or through the drawings they left behind — if not through the work of surviving Charlie Hebdo staffers. The movie plays best when offering insights into the thought process of such provocateurs, worst when it preaches to the choir or gets jumbled in too much material — including discussions of French anti-Semitism that only brush upon a topic that’s worthy of another full-length documentary.
These make for a few drawbacks in what’s otherwise a noble homage to both the victims and survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, providing us with a fairly lucid portrait of men and women who stood — and continue to stand — on the firing line of expression. Brushing away criticisms of racism or anti-Muslim sentiments (one interviewee reiterates how much Charb was a vehement pro-Palestinian), Je suis Charlie clearly knows on which side of the battle it rests, yet doesn’t forget to focus on the laughter. As the French-language title states, it’s a story of “humor unto death.”
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Film en Stock
Directors: Daniel Leconte, Emmanuel Leconte
Producer: Daniel Leconte
Executive producer: Raphael Cohen
Directors of photography: Damien Girault, Pierre Isnardon, Edouard Kruch
Editor: Gregoire Chevalier-Naud
Composer: Serge Besset
International sales: Pyramide International
Not rated, 90 minutes
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