Daniel and Emanuel Leconte have made a moving although imperfect film about the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, focussing on the massacre by Islamist gunmen at their headquarters last year and the immediate aftermath.
The first thing to say is that, for a British viewer acquainted with the socialist or liberal left, one of the main emotions the film evokes is shame. If someone was in the grim position of having to rely on the British left for their information about the world, they would have been told that Charlie Hebdo was a racist, immigrant-goading rag, a French Der Stürmer that exists to bait ethnic and religious minorities. I won’t dwell on the deep wrong-headedness of this evaluation (the argument has already been well made in Solidarity) other than to note how wilfully ignorant this film makes it seem.
Daniel Leconte first made a film about CH in 2007, after an unsuccessful attempt by a number of Islamic organisations to sue the newspaper under religious hatred laws. The case against CH failed, the court having ruled that what was being ridiculed was religious totalitarianism and political Islam, rather than Muslims as people.
That film was called It’s hard being liked by jerks, referencing a CH cartoon depicting a humane Muhammad embarrassed and annoyed by those who, during the Danish cartoon affair, were killing in his name. Some of the interviews from this earlier film are also used here. They feature the thoughtful staff of a small, struggling paper, defending the intent of their cartoons and cogently articulating why they feel it’s important that the right to blaspheme and mock religion be maintained.
Their politics are left-wing, libertarian and marked by a prickly anti-clericalism. The ugly Anglophone caricature of the Charlie Hebdo artists as either squalid racists or cheap shock-jocks seeking to sell copy evaporates on contact with reality. In particular, Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”) comes across as deeply sincere about what he is doing. He, along with most of the others, is now dead.
The film shows how many of the survivors are still traumatised by what they have seen and haunted by the loss of their friends and comrades. The most wrenching part of the film is probably an interview with Corinne Rey (the cartoonist known as “Coco”) who let the attackers into the newspaper’s office at gun point.
I had political reservations with the way the film dealt with the aftermath of the attacks. The scenes of a mass outpouring of support are genuinely moving. However, the film tends to present the reaction to the attacks as a popular republican front in which the French state and the whole society join arms for liberty. Indeed, at one point Phillipe Val — probably among the most politically incoherent of CH’s former editors — makes a daft point about how the French state no longer persecutes its dissenters, but defends them.
“Really?” I thought. The French state that bans demonstrations? That has imposed a months-long state of emergency which suspends key civil liberties? Can we really be comfortable with a common front with would-be tough guys like Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is so keen on freedom that he introduces legislation to make citizens of dual nationality uniquely vulnerable to having their French citizenship revoked, and who calls for the left to embrace immigration quotas? And do we trust a French establishment that invites the murderous, censoring dictators of the Middle East to attend the same demonstrations that are supposed to honour freedom of speech?
I thought about this, then it occurred to me there was a reason why I knew about all these things and why I could spot all these hypocrisies. It was because I had read about them in Charlie Hebdo. The film is less politically sharp than the publication it is celebrating!
Many important issues are not in the film. But by its own admission, the intent of the film is to refocus attention on those who died, on their humour, on their warmth and on their conviction that freedom must include the right to criticise and consequently to be awkward and to offend. A sad film, but an inspiring one.