The first of at least two documentaries to arrive while France is still reeling from last January’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, “Je suis Charlie” benefits from the fact that directors Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte had already made another film about the headline-grabbing satire publication eight years earlier, when it was sued by blasphemy-incensed Islamist orgs over a front-page caricature depicting an exasperated Mohammed (the caption, “It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks,” gave that earlier film its title). Featuring chilling archival interviews with slain cartoonists Cabu and Charb, this elegiac tribute is clearly aimed at local auds, for whom Charlie Hebdo was such a cultural institution that even schoolchildren knew the victims by name (the way Mad magazine readers might have recognized its contributors a generation ago), but respectfully puts the tragedy in context for foreigners who’ve been skewed by insensitive editorials that suggest the cartoonists had it coming.
Before sending this docu out into the wider world, someone should rethink how it presents the cartoons themselves — not because of their capacity to incite negative reactions (the documentary doesn’t think twice about reproducing the worst offenders), but simply because the film doesn’t give foreign viewers ample time to process the work, expecting them to quickly scan a drawing and read its subtitle (in those cases where a translation is even offered) while French-language voiceover speaks on top of the drawings.
Though we only get a partial idea of Charlie Hebdo’s infamous (and, let’s admit it, frequently unfunny) cartoon style, the film provides an excellent introduction to its staff, intercutting “what me worry” interviews that the father-son directing team recorded after the earlier blow-up with sober, post-tragedy assessments from the survivors. These include an especially wrenching account by Coco, who was forced at gunpoint to open the Charlie Hebdo offices to the attackers, who stormed in and murdered 17 of her co-workers in cold blood. If Coco’s testimony doesn’t make audiences cry, they will surely be haunted by a prophetic statement from Charb (who received death threats for his own, uh, prophetic attacks): “You can respond to a drawing or words without declaring war or physically eliminating your detractors.”
Unconcerned with elegance, but determined to make a statement about the freedom of expression, the talking-head-driven “Je suis Charlie” explains the curious role these tragedies of Jan. 7-9 play in France’s history of political commentary. Francois Holland discusses precedent, philosopher Elisabeth Badinter raises the still-sensitive question of anti-Semitism, and former Charlie Hebdo chief Philippe Val (who was in charge during the 2007 trials) explains how France has advanced since the days when Denis Diderot, Emile Zola and Victor Hugo feared for their lives for critiquing the state.
While the nation turned out en masse to support the fallen journos, the paper’s survivors hunkered down to produce its most widely read edition ever. As the world suddenly took interest in Charlie Hebdo, the Lecontes were able to leverage their relationship with the staff to gain intimate access to the production of that special issue, detailing how tough it was for the grieving team to find humor in the situation. (It may be harder still for those whose first brush with the publication came at that late stage to get the jokes, but there’s no denying the courage it took to regroup and respond in print.)
Over the course of the film’s final 20 minutes, the filmmakers present the slain cartoonists one by one, intercutting vintage home-video footage (turns out the cartoonists loved karaoke) with adoring testimony from their co-workers and more hard-to-read examples of their work. It’s a soft way to wrap a documentary that had been downright feisty when challenging the claims — raised by an ex-staffer’s editorial for the Nouvel Observateur and echoed in the backlash by American writers when the PEN Gala decided to honor the publication — that Charb signed all their death warrants. And yet, the film manages to use the radical Islamists’ hate-fueled beliefs (that death by jihad entitles one to an elevated level of respect) against them, convincingly elevating their victims to martyr status.