'Foot Soldiers of Democracy' Filmmakers on the Threats Cartoonists Face Around the World (Q&A)

CARTOONISTS Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

CARTOONISTS Cannes Film Still - H 2014

"Cartoonists are in danger every day," says documentary director Stephanie Vallotto.

Following the terror attack that targeted cartoonists and killed 12 people at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France 3 aired a special broadcast of Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy on Jan. 9 and was added to the UniFrance lineup.

The film, which premiered in the official selection at Cannes last year, follows imperiled artists from around the world in places as varied as Russia, Israel and Palestine, including Ai Weiwei in China and Jean “Plantu” Plantureaux in France, and focuses on the necessity of cartoonists to speak truth to power, even in the face of censorship and threats to their safety.

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The Hollywood Reporter spoke with French director Stephanie Valloatto and Romanian-born co-writer/producer Radu Mihaileanu about the dangers cartoonists face for "saying the things nobody wants to say."

You call cartoonists “footsoldiers,” which seems to state they are in a battle. What are they fighting for?

Milhaileanu: Cartoonists are on the front line. They are the first ones taking the pulse and they are saying to the public, ‘Pay attention.’ What happened (at Charlie Hebdo) is exactly what the film is about. The film is about 12 cartoonists around the world, some in very difficult countries with dictatorships and some of them what we call democracy in France, the U.S., Belgium, Israel, and even they say our democracies are really in danger. What happened (at Charlie Hebdo) isn’t just a question of was there enough defense by police, but it’s a question of how did we get here and why are they alone out there on the frontlines? That’s what the film speaks about.

Vallaotto: This term was really important for us, because it is like a war and they are on the frontline with a cartoon. With a cartoon when you see it you don’t forget. It’s the first thing you see in a newspaper. The image is stronger than words and will stay in your memory. With cartoons they are on the frontline always, and with their pencils they are like footsoldiers against many attacks, but they go on each day making cartoons.

What kinds of dangers do they face?

Vallaotto: Cartoonists are in danger every day. The danger is constant. Each day in each country there are many, many threats from politics, economics, the religious - jail, safety. The film shows cartoonists from Venezuela, China, Russia, Palestine, Tunisia, Algeria, and for each cartoonist the threats are the same. It’s a struggle for them for freedom of expression and democracy. They are always under threat if they draw against religion. After the (Charlie Hebdo) event, and this is really important for me, I don’t think the future will be the same for them now.

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What about a cartoon, meant to be funny, makes people so angry?

Mihaileanu: They say the truth and they are not afraid. One of the problems of our society is that we are becoming more and more politically correct and (cartoonists) are saying the things that nobody wants to say. That’s why people are afraid of them and hate them.  Politicians are afraid of them, because they will say things nobody else is able to say, and people that are religious have problems with them. … They are the only real heroes of our society, for me. We see everyday so many fake heroes, everywhere on television, and these real heroes are courageous and the real journalists, but nobody knows them.

Valloatto: Some people are offended because they only see one level, even if is is not the purpose of the cartoon. Cartoons are provocative of course, but it’s always with humor and that’s the purpose. You always have different levels and two meanings and when you only want to see one level you don’t understand the point. The Danish cartoon of the prophet was not against the religion it was against terrorism and extremism, but [the attackers] only saw the first level. If you can’t see the humor you can’t think about the democratic process. A government without humor is not democratic. It is important to address silence about problems.

What do you think of the self-censoring that is going on with CNN, AP unwilling to reprint the Charlie Hebdo images?

Mihaileanu: That’s part of the catastrophe. They continue to self censor. Of course, people will be shocked by some cartoons, and being shocked there will be some people saying you canot say that. We have a mountain of ‘you cannot say that’ and that moment the job of journalists will die and we will not live in a democracy anymore.

Did you know the cartoonists killed at Charlie Hebdo?

Mihaileanu: I knew (Jean Cabut) “Cabu” and (Georges) Wolinski, though not closely.  But I know about the job and the danger. And that’s why they were heroes. Like during the war, there were people that collaborated. They didn’t collaborate. (After the 2011 bombing) they knew that it could happen again, but they didn’t give up. That’s the hero. I know I’m risking my life, but I will continue. All of the cartoonists in the movie know that, but they know that and live with that and that they have to defend democracy and that is a wonderful way of living for them.

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How do you see the cartoonist community coming together after this?

Mihaileanu: With beautiful cartoons showing that they will not stop freedom of speech. (Pierre) Krall did a beautiful front page of Le Soir. ... Plantu founded Cartoonists for Peace (in 2006 with the support of the United Nations), and it’s wonderful, wonderful what he has done with the community, and it’s wonderful how they react together. If anywhere in the world someone is in danger, they move together to support the cartoonists.  They also travel to many places in the world to teach drawing and democracy and to teach youngsters the freedom of expression.

The film was well-received in Cannes. What has been the reaction in other countries?

Valloatto: People have been really positive because they don’t know the job of a cartoonist, and they can understand the importance of freedom of expression as the basis of democracy. I was just at Goa (International Film Festival) with the film and the reaction was very good. They have had the same problem there with freedom of speech. Last year cartoonist (Aseem Trivedi) was arrested becuasse he spoke about the corruption of the political parties. I met the Indian cartoonist Madhan and for him it was important to speak about the freedom of expression in a democracy. I am also hoping to have a screening at the UN in New York. We are now in discussions with them.

Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy will next screen in the U.S. at the Spokane International Film Festival in February.