Rebecca Wallersteiner reports on a timely new movie by France-based Jewish filmmaker, Radu Mihaileanu, which follows the lives of 12 political cartoonists
All around the world, cartoonists are being persecuted. Political cartoons are considered a threat to governments that are scared of criticism – everyone, even the illiterate, can understand them – and they have even been banned in some countries, including Russia.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year, Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers Of Democracy – a powerful and moving film produced by acclaimed Jewish director Radu Mihaileanu (The Concert, The Source, Train of Life) and directed by Stéphanie Valloatto – follows 12 courageous and undeterred political cartoonists – from Tel Aviv, Moscow, New York, Caracas and Paris – as they brilliantly capture the comedy and tragedy in the world, armed with just a pencil.
“Cartoonists permanently test the degree of democracy in their country and put themselves in the frontline,” explains Mihaileanu, who was born in Romania but is based in France.
“They are the foot soldiers of democracy.”
Made in 2014, the film has been nominated for awards. In the light of current affairs, it was thought important for it to be shown last month at JW3, followed by a panel discussion with The Times journalist David Aaronovitch, Marf cartoonist Martha Richler and Jodie Ginsberg, the CEO of Index on Censorship, a group that defends the rights to free expression worldwide.
Visually poetic and strikingly original, Cartoonists weaves together the extraordinary lives of the world’s leading political cartoonists, examining the difficulties and dangers they face, as well as the mischievous delight they take in their work.
A pencil can be a powerful weapon and, all around the world, cartoonists upset authorities – politicians hate to be made fun of – and can have a huge impact.
“Political cartoons make us laugh; without them our lives would be quite sad. But this is also a serious matter – they have the power to inform, but also to offend,” observed Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General. French cartoonist Jean Plantureux (Plantu) has worked for France’s Le Monde newspaper for 40 years.
In the documentary, we see him in his astonishingly tidy studio as well as talking to schoolchildren in classrooms and arguing about freedom of expression with his editor.
An entertaining character, Plantu has a childlike mischievousness. He confides that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy would ring him up to complain whenever he disliked that particular day’s cartoon. “A cartoonist should, above all, create a reaction. You must accept that with your drawings you will ruffle a few feathers,” Plantu comments in the film.
Cartoons threaten to deflate the dignity and pomposity of world leaders as varied as George Bush, Tony Blair, Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin, so they will naturally be nervous.
Occasional irritated phone calls from his editor are nothing compared to what some of Plantu’s fellow cartoonists have to endure, such as Nadia Khiari (Willis from Tunis), who draws on the walls of her troubled city, or Moscow cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky, who faces an outright ban on cartoons in Russia.
The film tracks Zlatkovksy while he works nights as a taxi driver, as his funny and incisive sketches have been banned from Russian papers. He occasionally has work published abroad.
To contrast the experiences of the cartoonists, Mihaileanu brought some of them together in real life. Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka and his Palestinian counterpart Baha Boukhari swap notes with Plantu, who is visiting. Boukhari explains that he satirises how he feels crossing the wall. Kichka is concerned that the real enemy for cartoonists is “being politically correct, not censorship”.
The right to freedom of expression in a democracy is a key issue here and satirists are constantly testing it, he explains to his colleagues.
From censorship in Putin’s Russia, to lawsuits in France, there is a very real danger in satirising world leaders and institutions. “A government without a sense of humour is not democratic”, is the message taken from a Venezuelan cartoon that reveals the power of satire to test the establishment.
In Mexico, cartoons have always been very popular and people even cut them out and identify with them. “Cartoonists know what is happening before anyone else and know where to plant the grenade. You have to keep pushing forwards,” said a Mexican cartoonist.
Though the film is primarily about political cartoonists, freedom of expression and how far this should go in a democracy are also discussed, as well as whether such a thing as absolute freedom of the press is even desirable.
As you would expect, the controversy surrounding cartoons of religious figures including the Pope and the prophet Mohammed make an appearance – although they are not the focus of the film.
Experimental Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is also interviewed. During the panel discussion, Aaronovitch, commenting on the film said: “Cartoonists pose a threat to dignity and the pompous.”
In every political hotspot around the world there are cartoonists risking their lives every day to challenge their government with their pencils and defend freedom of expression.
Indeed, as Richler says: “There is something humbling about cartoons. It takes us back to school and trying to express what we are really thinking.”
Clockwise from top: a poster advertising Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers Of Democracy, cartoonists who feature in the documentary