RAFF Review: 'Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy'

Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy? (Caricaturists, fantassins de la démocraties?)
(France, 106 min.)
Dir. Stéphanie Valloatto, Writ. Radu Mihaileanu, Stéphanie Valloatto
Plantu - Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy
The January 2015 murder of satirical cartoonist Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier arguably makes Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy? more relevant to audiences than it was when it premiered at Cannes back in 2014. #JeSuisCharlie might not be trending anymore now that the masses have turned their attention to the latest cause, One Direction, but the outcry over Charbonnier’s death and the deaths of his colleagues at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters makes this documentary an urgent essay for anyone who cares about free speech.

That the film remains relevant almost a year after its premiere supports one of the talking heads’ observation that cartoonists often act as cultural barometers. They sniff something in the air and anticipate the political landscape, and they use their drawings in turn to provoke feelings and thought about the global political landscape. Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy captures the global role of the cartoonist as director Stéphanie Valloatto interviews a dozen satirical cartoonists in twelve countries to find a universal ideal within their drawings. Each artist has a story to tell about the value of free speech and the consequent threats to personal liberty and security that come with voicing truths through humorous images.

The central figure in the film is French cartoonist Jean Plantureux aka ‘Plantu’, who provides stories of his work as the satirical cartoonist for Le Monde for forty years. Plantu, hardly a stranger to controversy, could easily have found himself the target of the bullets riddled throughout the offices of Charlie Hebdo, for his accounts of threats and hostile reactions to his drawings, which don’t shy away from hyperbolizing any political, spiritual, or cultural figure, stress the very need to confront such radical ideals through humour. His work shows how a positive reaction trumps a negative one, and the power of laughter is a greater political weapon than a bullet or a book.

Other stories, such as the thread featuring Nadia Khiari, creator of the feline figure Willis from Tunis, finds a powerful tool in the juxtaposition of humour and violence as her cartoons stress the bloodshed in Tunisia. Rayma Suprani, alternatively, finds herself a target in Venezuela for substituting a banana for the President when new laws banned artists from drawing his face. Stories in Russia reveal a hammer against freedom of speech that swung long before the days of Pussy Riot, while New York cartoonists reveal a repository of Bush/Cheney jokes far more bottomless than the pit into which America dug most of the world. Each story champions the need of speaking truth to power and shows that where voices may be silenced, images speak louder than words.

Each of the figures is as good and witty a character as one hopes a shrewd artist to be, and it’s almost a shame that the film doesn’t give even more time to the dozen voices participating in the essay. Each story adds to a greater volume, though, and honours the work of political commentators, journalists, and artists of any form.

Cartoonists features a healthy range of political cartoons to accompany the word and stories of each artist. The images are expectedly provocative and hilarious, and the film lets the visual power of the still frames find its own gravity. Cartoonists sometimes approaches too many of these cartoons with the glance effect, though, and moves through the images too quickly to do some of them justice, but the pictures pass by like animated cartoon and find a life of their own through the chorus of images. Cartoonists, like many of the works it honours, is provocative, funny, and perceptive.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy screens at the Reel Artists Film Festival on Friday, March 27 at 6:00 pm at TIFF Lightbox.

Producer and director Stéphanie Valloatto will introduce the film and then moderate a panel discussion on political cartooning in Canada with cartoonists Bruce MacKinnon and Brian Gable and editor Haroon Siddiqui following the screening.

And on Saturday, March 28 at 8:00 pm at TIFF Lightbox:

Stéphanie Valloatto will introduce the film, and John Ralston Saul will give the keynote address on the theme of freedom of speech at this event.