C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons (It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks) (Director: Daniel Leconte): The closing night film of Cinefranco this year is perhaps uniquely suited to a francophone audience. Despite the presence of subtitles, Leconte’s documentary assumes a fairly broad knowledge of current French politics and media, and will likely be slightly impenetrable to the rest of us. That is not to say that it doesn’t explore important issues, but it does so in such a narrow context that it will be difficult for anyone not already familiar with the subject in question to hang in for almost two hours.
The subject in question is the court case brought in February 2006 by several French Muslim groups against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Long known for its irreverent political cartoons, the magazine was accused of crossing the line when it republished the infamous cartoons of Mohammed that appeared first in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. In addition, it added several of its own cartoons, including a cover image of a crying Mohammed with the caption “Mahomet débordé par les intégristes” (“Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”). The speech balloon provides the title for the film: C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons (“It’s hard being loved by jerks”). The film is an in-depth account of the three-day trial, with footage from outside the courtroom as well as interviews with the lawyers and witnesses, who often recount their testimony in considerable detail. What’s not particularly clear is when these interviews were filmed. Some seem to be very soon after or even during the trial, while others are more hazy.
Significant to the events was the ongoing presidential campaign, which led most of the candidates to weigh in supporting the freedom of the press (although some were more committed and vocal than others). Eventual winner Nicolas Sarkozy sends a letter of support which is introduced dramatically on the trial’s first day, while Socialist leader François Hollande appears in person to testify for the magazine.
There’s never much doubt that Philippe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, will be acquitted, and the parade of witnesses will be a succession of unknown figures for many, but notable among the defenders of the cartoons was Claude Lanzmann, director of the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah. When asked if there was any parallel between the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists and the racist caricatures of Jews promoted by the Nazis, Lanzmann dismisses the question by saying that the purpose of the cartoons was very different. I was frustrated by this answer and wanted there to be more exploration of this issue, but it was not forthcoming. This is especially interesting to me since in Canada, we have laws designed to prevent incidents of anti-semitism and hate speech targetting other groups. I wonder how far freedom of the press would extend here if offensive political cartoons were published.
The filmmaker’s perspective is quite clear from the beginning, and although the lawyers representing the Muslim side are articulate and intelligent, they are never quite able to make their case, either in the courtroom or in the film. To me, this is a bit of a missed opportunity, because by focussing so tightly on the court case rather than on the public debate it set off, the film denies us a chance to hear from some others on the issue. Another thing only hinted at is that many of the people professing support for “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech” were notorious xenophobes and far right figures such as Jean Marie Le Pen. These supporters are hardly mentioned, making Val and his editorial staff seem like saintly figures galvanizing only the highest principles of the French citizenry, the protection of democracy and freedom.
I had just one more slight issue with the film, and although it might seem minor, it really grated on me by the end. The “score” as it were consisted of one piece of music about 30 seconds long that was used over and over and over. It sounded like music from a thriller that would accompany a bank heist or a police chase, and it was used to ratchet up the suspense during the trial, but it became annoying very quickly.
In conclusion, although I had some issues with the film itself from the perspective of a non-francophone, non-European, I think for a French audience this would be very fresh in their minds. Their familiarity with both the characters and the issues raised would make this far more relevant to that audience than to one here in North America. Nonetheless, it did show in broad strokes the issues facing the French people today around the clash between certain religious values and the freedoms of a democratic system.
The trailer below is only available in French, with no English subtitles: