Daniel Leconte's 119-minute French language documentary is an energetic thriller of ideas. It covers a high-profile court case in which three Paris Muslim groups sued the left-leaning satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for reprinting those notorious cartoon drawings from a Danish paper (Jyllans-Posten, September 2005) mocking Islam and Islamists. The French plaintiffs' particular focus was two images, most notably one with the Prophet wearing a bomb in his turbanand a new cartoon by Charlie Hebdo artist Cabu of Muhammad holding his head in chagrin and saying "It's hard being loved by jerks" ("C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons") with the heading above "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists" ("Mahomet débordé par les intégristes ").
A success at Cannes and part of the New York Film Festival, this verbose two-hour French documentary may be a hard sell for Americans but it's both significant and funit's a celebration of French logic and a triumph of humor over solemnity. Seen primarily from the point of view of philosophical libertarians and the Charlie Hebdo team, it's a courtroom drama with livelihoods and freedom of expression at stake. Moreover, this case has an added importance because in other western countries where the cartoons were printed, the authorities declined to defend, while in the Arab world a number of journalists were fired for daring to reprint them. In the view of Charlie Hebdo's fiery but ironic leader Philippe Val, this was a victory for French Muslims.
Ironically "fundamentalist" in French is "intégriste," but one thing French fundamentalist Muslims seem not to want is to integrate. If laughter heals, Charlie Hebdo may have struck a blow for the cause of Muslim integration in France. Richard Malka, the defendants' energetic young attorney, made a dazzling shocker of a presentation toward the end when he said, in effect, "So you want to be treated like everyone else? Then here's what you'll get..." and he preceded to display a raft of earlier Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the most obscene, blasphemous, and scurrilous nature lambasting Christians, Jews, and even Buddhists over the past 10 or 15 years of the weeklyfar worse stuff than the offending cartoons about Muslims. At first the court was aghast and Malka thought he'd blown it. Then everybody, including the judges and even the attorneys for the plaintiffs, began to break into fits of uproarious giggles--the 'fou rire' the French are given to sometimes. After that, it was obvious who (the magazine) and what (freedom of expression) won the case. Malka's case is irrefutable, however uneasy one may feel about the way the Muslim fundamentalists were mocked and how that might be taken as part of a mythical "clash of civilizations." If they don't want to be mocked, the Muslims of France would not only be asking to be treated differently from everyone else but would be demanding a repressive society.
While Leconte's bias is extremely mild compared to, say, the obtrusive editorializing of Michael Moore, it's the nature of the case that not every viewpoint gets an equal hearing. The plaintiffs hardly trieddespite having President Jacques Chirac's lawyer, Francis Szpiner, as their chief attorney: they only presented one witness, while the defense had over a dozen. Chirac was negotiating with the Saudis. He wanted to appease them. Sarkozy, not yet elected, sent a well-publicized fax the first day endorsing Charlie Hebdo. "I prefer an excess of caricature to an absence of caricature," he wrote. His opponent Ségolène Royale sent a more niggling text message of support.
It's pretty fair to say the fact that Charlie Hebdo won was a victory for free expression--and the right to be indifferently outrageous toward every religion--and agnostics and atheists too for that matter. But it's not exactly the case that every viewpoint gets an equal hearing. The film's two major weaknesses: not even the voices or texts of the actual trial could be shown, and the whole case gives little voice to Islamic moderates.
To make up for the lack of direct coverage, Leconte interviews the many defense "witnesses" to summarize their statements both during and after the trial. All the attorneys on both sides and one court representative also get ample opportunity to address the camera. So do many of the people in the hall outside the courtroom who conducted heated debates and made impassioned statements. Leconte also reports lively goings-on at the offices the paper being sued and L'Express, which also became involved.
Note that while in the US Muslims are about 2% of the population, Europe has 15-20 million, France the highest proportion, 7-10% of their total. Muslims are more visible and less scared in Europe than in the US--where the post 9/11 mood is frankly hostile and exclusionary. In France there are big movie stars who are Arabs; and an Arab woman, Rachida Dati, is Minister of Justice (one of seven women cabinet members appointed by Sarkozy). But a key issue outside this film's scope is whether Muslims, relatively new to Europe as a force, are secure and thick-skinned enough to endure normal criticism in a democratic society with a free press.
The material is controversial. The film seeks a wide perspective. All the key players are heard from-- lawyers, witnesses, journalists--and there's revealing coverage of free-wheeling editorial meetings and public demonstrations. Leconte considers the international political implications of the issues in their ideological and media terms. There's still a feeling the picture is somewhat monochromatic. How integrated can modern society be? There are so many contexts involved: Muslims among the French; the French as seen by the Muslims; the controversy as seen by the rest of the world; the controversy as seen by the Muslim world. But Leconte, from his insider's point of view, takes us to the heart of an intense and articulate culture.
The film opened in French theaters September 1, 2008.
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