Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy

After the January shooting on the Charlie Hebdo offices that killed 11 people, French director Stéphanie Valloatto's documentary on the struggle of political cartoonists, focusing on a dozen artists from all over the world, gains a whole new relevance.

     Finished and premiered (at the Cannes festival in 2014) nearly a year before the Paris tragedy, it is at heart a piece of activist cinema, as its title makes clear. Made under the aegis of the Cartooning for Peace association, it's meant to highlight the struggles and stakes that political satire faces in our contemporary world and how much political cartoons are an important part of democracy and free speech, while proposing a bird's eye view of the "state of the world" today.

     Though Ms. Valloatto is the nominal director, Cartoonists seems clearly masterminded by its producer and co-writer, Franco-Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu; his filmmaking throughout the years (to be fair often more well-meaning than artistically interesting) has tended towards "problem pictures" yearning for good will and peace among all peoples, and there's a strong through-line that leads into this documentary. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does suggest why Cartoonists is intrinsically awkward if competent: it's a politically correct film about a politically incorrect vocation.

     If a cartoonist's work is to express anger, and the enemy is political correctness, as one of the interviewees adroitly says, there is much about Cartoonists that is politically correct. It starts with the fact that perhaps the single most polarizing and important cartooning issue in recent years, the Danish Muhammad cartoons that ignited a firestorm around the world, is mentioned merely in passing and late in the film. And as laudable as it is to train the camera on other names and other countries and not focus on that alone, it's certainly bizarre that Ms. Valloatto edits in so much that comes off as staged for the camera and somewhat surplus to requirements (like many of the moments at Russian cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky's dacha, for instance).

     I came out of it with the sense that Cartoonists merely skims the surface of its subject, and that there's a truly great documentary hiding within its footage. This is just not it. And while its subject alone gives it a relevance it undoubtedly deserves in a post-Charlie Hebdo context, that context also glaringly points out its shortcomings.

France, Belgium, Italy 2014
103 minutes
 Director Stéphanie Valloatto; screenwriters Radu Mihaileanu and Ms. Valloatto; composer Armand Amar; cinematographer Cyrille Blanc (colour); editor Marie-Jo Audiard; producers Mr. Mihaileanu and Ms. Blanc; production companies Oï Oï Oï Productions, Cinextra Productions, Orange Studio and France 3 Cinéma in co-production with Panache Productions, La Compagnie Cinématographique and B-Movies in collaboration with Istituto Luce-Cinecittà
Screened February 15th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)


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