The clash of fundamentalist Islam and Western values as encapsulated by the “blasphemous” Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is examined at length in “It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks.” Daniel Leconte’s tube-style doc comprehensively covers the 2007 Paris legal case brought against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which reprinted 12 of the original cartoons, the proceedings of which served as a flashpoint both for Islamic sensitivities and the resilience of the right to free speech. There’s no question which side the film comes down on, and while the issues it airs remain of high importance and are lucidly articulated herein, talking heads format makes this a good fit for Eurotube situations but not for cinemas outside Gaul.
While placing the action firmly in the context of the anti-Western terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, Bali, Amsterdam, London and elsewhere, the film focuses intently on the cartoon scandal, which flared only in 2006, the year after the drawings were initially published in Denmark. Even though other publications printed some of the cartoons, which contravened Islamic tradition, if not law, by visually depicting the Prophet, the irreverent Charlie Hebdo was singled out for prosecution in a suit brought by the Great Mosque of Paris, the World Muslim League and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France.
As publications in neighboring countries had backed down under pressure and in fear of violent retaliation, Charlie Hebdo was fortunate to have an editor as resolute and principled as Philippe Val. Convinced that President Jacques Chirac, at the time about to make a state visit to Saudi Arabia, was thoroughly in support of the prosecution, Val made himself and the rest of the magazine’s staff available to Leconte in the lead-up to the trial, giving the viewer access to editorial and strategy sessions.
These meetings give birth to further cartoons, including one by Cabu depicting Mohammad holding his head in exasperation and uttering the phrase from which the film takes its title. They also show Val sharpening his ideas and having success rallying support from key elements of the French intelligentsia, which proved valuable in the trial to come.
Apparently at the prosecution’s request, Leconte was not allowed to film the trial, which began Feb. 7, 2007, so he relies upon summaries captured in the crowded courthouse lobby and at subsequent sit-down interviews with lawyers and participants. One early surprise is a letter of vigorous support of the defense sent by conservative presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy, which was later followed by a tepid text message from socialist opponent Segolene Royale, cueing derision from Val. The defense attorneys are uniformly more impressive than those of the prosecution, while philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, journo Mohamed Sifaoui and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, among the many witnesses, make some of the most cogent points. Not helping the Islamic cause at the courthouse are several rabble-rousers who won’t shut up when politely asked to do so.
The verdict is heartening if not surprising by the time it comes. As examples of how Charlie Hebdo had previously run outrageous cartoons lampooning numerous religions, particularly Christianity, are trotted out, the point is made that the Islamists weren’t looking for equal treatment under the law but, rather, special treatment to exempt it from the sort of ridicule regularly dished out to others. Overall, pic offers a strong example of individuals unafraid to stand up for basic but sometimes neglected principles even in the face of heavy intimidation and even death threats.
Tech values, especially the sound under often trying circumstances, are excellent, although the “suspense”-style score is overly melodramatic.