Home Video Hovel: Tough Being Loved by Jerks, by Dayne Linford
Tough Being Loved by Jerks (2008) concerns a suit brought against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by the Grand Mosque of Paris for propagating hate speech following the publication of the infamous Danish Muhammed cartoons in 2007. Released three years before the magazine’s offices were firebombed and seven before the killing at gunpoint of twelve people inside them, including many of the cartoonists whose work was so controversial and the editor who pursued that work following the suit, it is perhaps unfair to view the film in light of then unknown and unforeseen history, but also unavoidable, especially as the film has now been re-released following the shooting. The specter of the eventual shootings of many of the people on screen haunts throughout, providing a disturbing counterpart to the actual subject matter of the piece, Charlie Hebdo’s eventual legal victory, rendered in some respects pyrrhic by the attacks and in others more suffused with meaning.
Because of the subsequent march, or perhaps stumble, of history, the events portrayed in this film now very much feel like only the first act in a much larger drama, but this first act is key in understanding the perspectives and motivations of the men, women, countries and ideologies involved. Further, Tough as a document of these events is a particularly telling cipher of the general Western reaction to Charlie Hebdo and the Muhammed cartoon controversy.
To cover filmmaking before politics, the documentary is laid out in a standard bare bones narrative, with the trial itself largely covered through interview and a clever use of courtroom sketches since cameras were barred from the proceedings. The film begins with the shooting of a Danish filmmaker for an ostensibly anti-Islam film featuring depictions of the Prophet Muhammed, then moves into the response to this shooting from a Danish publication, announcing a draw Muhammed contest, which received thousands of entries and a new round of death threats from radical Muslims. Because of the controversy, often violent, the Danish publication withdrew the contest winning cartoons. In response, many leftist publications throughout Europe, especially satirical ones like Charlie Hebdo, picked up the cartoons and published them, often in the face of significant political, legal, and economic counter-pressure. Charlie Hebdo further published several of their own to go with the batch, one featuring Muhammed with his face buried in his hands, the caption above him reading, “Muhammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists,” while he says, “It’s tough being loved by jerks.”
Charlie Hebdo’s supplemented reprint was an enormous success and, coupled with their subsequent issues revisiting this theme, launched them to the forefront of the controversy and rendered them the stand-ins for leftist actors therein. In response, the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamic Organizations sued Philippe Val, then editor and publisher of the magazine, for hate speech. Tough moves through all this at a brisk pace, giving us an inside perspective on the magazine in the process of publication, both during the reprint and the court case.
It’s told almost entirely from the perspective of the magazine’s staff and their defense counsel, though the complainants counsel, Francis Szpiner, is featured extensively. Unfortunately, his interview and the interviews of several of the prosecution witnesses are obscured by the combatative nature of filmmaker Daniel Leconte’s questioning. The film already features a good amount of editorializing from Charlie Hebdo’s staff and cartoonists and doesn’t really benefit from Leconte’s efforts to antagonize those who argued or testified against the magazine. In fact, as an attempt to portray a particular political and cultural event, the film is hurt by this contentiousness – there are many interesting and valid responses derived from many different arguments and historical contexts to these events, which were largely ignored and often trampled on throughout the film. For Leconte to go in with such an agenda, even one with such a broad base of support across Western culture, especially now, does a disservice to his subject and renders the complicated exploration of this intersection of blasphemy, hate speech, humor, politics, free speech, self-censorship, legal censorship, and violent censorship far too simplistically.
Unlike many documentary filmmakers, however, Loconte has no problem displaying his slant on the material, featuring extensively his back and forth during interviews and, when asked during one such interview, stating that he is unequivocally in support of the magazine. He also has no illusions about the potential costs of this kind of satire, beginning with the death of Theo van Gogh as a necessary introduction of the kind of stakes Charlie Hebdo is confronting in its continual printing, even now, of Muhammed cartoons. This is especially sobering in the light that, as the Dutch filmmaker, many of the cartoonists shown here drawing the prophet, speaking their minds on their situation, expressing why they feel they must continue these cartoons, have since been shot dead.
Nonetheless, many troubling questions go completely unacknowledged, let alone answered. The Western, particularly French, position is clearly articulated, but what about that of actual Muslims, only a couple of whom, the Algerian writer Mohamed Sifaoui, who served as witness for the defense, and another Muslim intellectual, Abdelwahab Meddeb, who also served as a witness for the defense with the slightest difference of opinion, are interviewed for the film. What about calm, well-spoken Muslims who disagree with the magazine and can clearly articulate why the cartoons were felt to be a problem? Were they perhaps dissuaded by Leconte’s clear opinions on the matter, fearing the editing distortion used so often against Muslims and Middle Easterners in Western media since 9/11 and before? Did he not bother to seek them out? Instead of a discussion of religious tolerance and the correlation between rhetorical and literal violence, it becomes a discussion of whether the cartoons are offensive or not (they are, else it wouldn’t be worth talking about and Charlie Hebdo wouldn’t print them). Since the civil suit can be seen as a form of censorship and since those suing couched the legal action in freedom of speech terms, this can largely be seen as their fault.
However, it’s important to consider the mindset behind this apparently rash legal extreme, which mindset, in detail or totality, is completely disregarded in this film. For the past century and especially since 9/11, Western society has continually villainized and degraded Muslim peoples and cultures. France in particular has a long and difficult history with Islam, rooted in its colonization of Algeria and continual repression of the majority Muslim population there. Tellingly, it was a particularly well-orchestrated guerilla (read: terrorist) campaign in Algiers that eventually lead to the liberation of Algeria from French rule, as well as serving as a test case for the effectiveness of Islamic terrorism against Western imperial powers and the impetus for the current radical Muslim movement. Additionally, the French government hasn’t kept up a stellar track record in modern times. Ranging from attempts to ban the hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women to cover the hair and chest, as opposed to the burqa, the full body covering), antagonism to Muslim religious bodies and leaders, and extensive anti-Middle Eastern immigration restrictions, the government and much of the public have demonstrated how hollow a Charlie cartoonist’s contention that Muslims are fully enfranchised to participate in “French democracy” really is. This is not to say that magazines like Charlie Hebdo should be kept from printing what they please, but to contextualize a reaction which is easy to dismiss when one is ill-equipped to understand it.
As valid as the historical and social factors creating this mindset are, it feels ultimately futile to state in the face of the massacre that occurred previously this year. As does the court victory portrayed in the film, and the suit, and the political furor. The question of how valid or how offensive is the use of a medium historically known to trade in racial stereotypes and cruel caricatures is almost beside the point, as is the question of how valid or how unreasonable a pan cultural prohibition against the portrayal of a sacred figure may be. All that really seems to matter is that something, some disenfranchisement, some anger, is enough to result in so much death and violence, both of Westerners and, much, much more often, of Middle Easterners.
I guess that’s what leaves me so upset both with this documentary and the general Western perspective on all things Charlie Hebdo that it serves as such an indication of. Though I personally side with the contention that Charlie has a right to print whatever it pleases, you can’t argue that it does so in a void, and the nature of political rhetoric, so often defended as the right of the speaker, is as often that of shouting fire in a crowded theater, or worse, inciting the crowd to violence. In this metaphor, do we blame those who heed the call, or those who issued it? While it’s true Charlie never outright calls for violence, it does promote a kind of xenophobic rhetoric, fashionably secular, of course, rendering Muslim culture, and, by extension, Muslims, absurd and imbecilic, especially in their use of racist caricatures. To state that there’s a tradition of such art is about as baseless an argument for worth as stating there’s a tradition in upholding the Confederate flag as a sign of nobility and righteousness. There’s a place for the reductio ad absurdum practiced by these kinds of publications, but to characterize everyone who disagrees with you as an idiot and to promote the publication of images that are inaccurate, deeply offensive, and degrading to so many people as wholly justified because rooted in tradition (not nearly as old as Islam, I assure you), and aspersions of French authenticity (a strangely conservative contention for a such a supposedly left-leaning magazine) is not just deeply problematic, it’s actively ignorant and self-serving.
At no point am I saying Charlie Hebdo should have been attacked, firebombed, or even sued. But to act like they’re heroes of Western democratic free speech is to disregard the facts on the ground, the self-serving nature of their contentions, the relative, at the time, comfort of their position in French society, and the historical culpability of their nation as well as many others in the reality taking place in the Middle East today. It is easy to publish pictures offensive to a religion we do not like and do not understand, to hold draw Muhammed contests in the relative comfort and security of our Western democratic states, secure in our rights and livelihood, while those who later arm themselves in a similarly self-righteous fury dwell under the boot of our racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance.
Ultimately, it is not the heroic treatment of the staff of Charlie Hebdo that troubles me about this film, but rather the complete lack of the cultural, historical, culpable context surrounding Western interactions with the Middle East over the last century in particular. That context is key to understanding the point of view of Muslim actors in the country and the reaction to the publication throughout the Middle East, lending the events portrayed their proper historical weight and complexity – this is not a conflict of good vs. evil, but a question of political rhetoric and its double-edged nature, and of the potential unforeseen consequences of rhetoric championed as worthwhile in and of itself. In many ways, because of their consistent dissident perspective and their equally consistent insistence on going ahead with the publications despite a great deal of counter-pressure, the staff of Charlie Hebdo are to be lauded and perhaps understood as standing for a key provision of Western democratic government. On the other hand, they are approaching a centuries old political hotbed with all the sensitivity of a child and the easy patronization of the politically liberal of the First World. Tough Being Loved by Jerks applauds both their bravery and their ignorance, without realizing that each feeds into the other and that the stridency thus created is no kind of response to the destruction, disenfranchisement, and exploitation of an entire region of the Earth, in addition to the degradation of the religion practiced by that region’s majority and many others besides. This is retrograde filmmaking of the most dangerous kind, one that seeks not to enlighten and push its viewers to step outside their understanding, but instead to confirm their most provincial and self-serving convictions.