For me, it’s impossible to discuss the documentary Je Suis Charlie without mentioning the particulars surrounding its world premiere in Toronto. After a week of almost zero security presence, change was suddenly in the air. As my wife and I stood in line outside the cinema, we observed a police officer and his dog patrolling the building’s perimeter. Then, as we entered the theater, our bags were rifled through with a scrupulosity befitting a TSA training video. Finally, when the lights came up at the end of the film, we noticed a dozen beefy guards scattered around the room.
When we discovered that two Charlie Hebdo artists were in attendance at the premiere, the reason for all of these precautions became plain. The need was even clearer after learning that a Pakistani member of parliament had placed a $200K fatwa on the head of Riss, one of the cartoonists present.
Happily, the screening otherwise proceeded without a hitch, and it was a privilege to hear from these two champions of free thought, free speech, and brutal satire. It was almost as great a privilege to hear from the directors of Je Suis Charlie, whose stated purpose in making this film was to give lie to the boast of the butchers of January 7th, that they’d killed Charlie Hebdo.
I was relieved that the father and son directing team of Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte took the high road in a narrative that could’ve bogged down in blood and violence. The details of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and a Jewish market in Paris are covered, but primarily through onscreen narration by the survivors. Mercifully and tastefully, only one brief video clip of these horrifying events is shown, of cops shooting at unseen terrorists while escorting shoppers to safety.
Instead, Je Suis Charlie is structured to honor the life and work of Charlie Hebdo’s staff. This is made evident by the opening dedication to those killed, then more poignantly by a conclusion in which each murdered individual is tenderly profiled with footage showing the quirks and behaviors that made each one unique (Tignous loved to annoy his coworkers by singing musical ditties that inevitably became their earworm for the day; Cabu was eternally youthful and giddily enthusiastic even at age 76).
The main body of Je Suis Charlie, however, is helpfully chronological in nature. We learn of Charlie Hebdo’s lengthy history of ridiculing Islamic fundamentalism, with highlights including their support of the Danish cartoonists in 2005, their own creation of cartoons depicting Mohammad, and a major French court battle in 2007 that sustained their right to free speech. (Indeed, it was in making a documentary of this trial that Leconte père made his close acquaintance with the Charlie Hebdo staff.)
The survivors also recount how deeply touched they were by the solidarity shown during the massive worldwide demonstrations immediately after the shootings. Two million marched in Paris alone, the largest gathering there since the city’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945.
Unfortunately, this was then followed by what the remaining staff describe as the “oui, mais (yes, but)” phenomenon, demonstrated most publicly by the Pope’s “they had it coming” defense of religiously based violence. Je Suis Charlie reveals how this sad conduct commenced even before all of Charlie Hebdo’s dead were buried.
Beyond its history lesson, Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte’s documentary offers viewers of all religious persuasions plenty to think about. A Muslim philosophy teacher challengingly goes on record stating that more than moderate Muslims, the world needs brave Muslims who will unequivocally, publicly denounce extremist violence and embrace the values of the Enlightenment.
A couple of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists legitimately question the fragility of a religion that riots murderously in response to ink drawings and the female form. Just as importantly, they proceed to make a clear separation between ridiculing fundamentalism and engaging in racism.
This distinction remains quite timely for many progressives who are too willing to throw the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali under the Political Correctness Bus, for pointing out the inconvenient truths about the widespread misogyny and violent tendencies found in much of the Islamic world. (Remember the fatwa on Riss that I mentioned earlier?) One can simultaneously despise those behaviors, as well as loathe the Texas redneckery that panics over a dark-skinned Muslim kid bringing a homemade clock to school and the European Nimbyism that turns away refugees for the sake of maintaining the fiction of a “Christian Europe.” Indeed, I think this is the only intellectually honest path.
But I digress. With a film about Charlie Hebdo, there was a real danger that it could be a good film, in the sense that telling your kids to eat their vegetables is good. After all, shouldn’t we like a film about the world’s most notable and notorious atheist publication? Happily, the Lecontes have created a good film, in the sense that Je Suis Charlie is well-designed, emotionally moving, and intellectually provocative.
4 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: Je Suis Charlie has not been rated by the MPAA. This is probably a film best suited for those 15 and over, in light of its implicit violence and provocative satire.)