'Cartoonists, Foot Soldiers of Democracy': Cannes Review

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

CARTOONISTS Cannes Film Still - H 2014

A funny and insightful, if classically assembled, talking-heads documentary.

French first-time director Stephanie Valloatto's documentary looks at political cartoonists from around the world.

CANNES – Just like the best political cartoons, the documentary Cartoonists, Foot Soldiers of Democracy (Caricaturistes, Fantassins de la democratie) manages to synthesize a vast subject in ways both insightful and, at times, frightfully funny.

The feature debut of French director Stephanie Valloatto was produced and co-written by France-based Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu (The Concert, The Source). The film weaves together the portraits of 12 cartoonists from countries as varied as China, Burkina Faso, Russia, Palestine, Israel, the United States and France. By exploring and contrasting their work and experiences, Cartoonists manages to suggest something about the necessity for the artists' kind of disarming and often hilarious form of journalistic commentary and how a lot of world leaders are so acutely aware of the power cartoonists wield that they are frequently censored.

Documentary festivals and broadcasters will pounce on this item but because it is extremely accessible -- some might even argue too broad -- it could do well as a niche theatrical release in major cities.

The film’s backbone of sorts is provided by political cartoonist Plantu, who works for France’s Le Monde newspaper and who’s extremely active in promoting and teaching his trade around the world. Valloatto shoots him in classrooms full of youngsters, talking about censorship with his editor in the courtroom in which he’ll next have to appear and in the Holy Land, where he was crazy enough -- as shown in archive footage -- to ask Yasser Arafat to draw a Palestinian and an Israeli flag and then take the drawing to Shimon Peres and ask him to sign the paper, too, as if it were a peace deal between the leaders.

The work of Plantu (real name: Jean Plantureux) is provocative, perceptive and funny, and it might come as a surprise for Western audiences that someone based in Paris has to deal with censorship, too -- but Plantu confesses he would get calls directly from former President Sarkozy whenever he didn’t approve of that particular day’s cartoon. But the occasional glacial phone call is nothing compared to what some of Plantu's colleagues have to endure, such the cartoonist Zlatkovsy in Russia, who works nights as an illegal taxi driver to supplement his income, as his bitingly true and funny work has been banned from Russian papers since the Brezhnev era (though he occasionally published abroad). In contemporary Russia, it’s forbidden to publish any cartoons containing Putin, justice officials, the police or the army, making political cartooning virtually impossible. Though the film is about political cartoonists, it's impossible to ignore the subject of press freedom -- or lack thereof -- at the same time, and is clear that even in countries such as France and U.S., there's no such thing as absolute press freedom.

In Tunisia, the director talks to Nadia Khiari (pen name: Willis from Tunis), who has found alternative outlets for her provocative cartoons, including Facebook, where she has more than 35,000 likes, and on the walls of the city. Her work mainly denounces those who have stemmed the tide of the recent revolution in the name of religion or the reigning patriarchy. In Venezuela, Nadia’s colleague Rayma Suprani fights against those in power in her cartoons as well.

To contrast the experiences of the cartoonists she interviewed, Valloatto not only put them next to each other in the editing room, but she actually brought together quite a few in real life: Zohore from the Ivory Coast and Glez from neighboring Burkina Faso talk about self-censorship and imposed censorship; and Palestinian cartoonist Boukhari and his Israeli counterpart, Kichka, compare notes between them and with Plantu, who’s visiting, about their limits. Revealingly, Kichka is the only one who can get away with drawing oversized noses for his Jewish caricatures, mischievously stating that the real enemy for cartoonists is “being politically correct, not censorship."

As could be expected, the Danish Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy and the author of the original comics, Kurt Westergaard, also make an appearance, though they’re not the focus of the film, and Valloato wisely cuts to an explanation of Cartooning for Peace, co-founded by Plantu and Kofi Annan, in the next segment.

Clips of talking heads are alternated with samples of their work, mostly drawings but also animated work, such as that of Chinese artist Pi San, whose work is mainly broadcast via YouTube and whose friend artist Ai Weiwei makes an appearance as an interviewee. The presence of animated work implicitly suggests that provocative art and cartoons are not that far removed from one another and that censorship remains a major problem for both.

Some gorgeous crane shots keep the neatly assembled film from feeling too much like a made-for-TV product.

Production companies: Oi Oi Oi Productions, Cinextra Productions

Director: Stephanie Valloatto

Screenwriters: Stephanie Valloatto, Radu Mihaileanu

Producer: Radu Mihaileanu

Director of photography: Cyrille Blanc

Editor: Marie-Jo Audiard

Music: Armand Amar

Sales: Kinology

No rating, 106 minutes