It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks (2008)
C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons(original title)
Director: Daniel Leconte – 118 min
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, French cinema houses across the country have been screening It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks, a 2008 documentary that looks back at a legal battle which took place in country’s courts. Here in Budapest, the local French Institute hosted a special screening last week that I was able to attend. While the debate between the right to free speech and sensitivity to Islam has been reignited, in this film we learn that France already lived through this debate almost a decade ago.
In Daniel Leconte’s film we’re transported back to the mid 2000s, when Europe was engulfed in protest, after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted Muhammad. Shortly thereafter, Charlie Hebdo would eventually reprint the cartoons. One of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, Cabu (who was killed in this year’s attacks) drew an accompanying image commenting on the wave of angry protests engulfing Europe at the time, under the headline “Mahomet débordé par les intégristes” which translates to “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists.” A frustrated Muhammad is covering his face saying “C’est dur d’etre aimer par des cons which translates to “It’s hard being‚ loved by jerks.
Shortly after the publication of the cartoons, Charlie Hebdo was taken to court by the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Muslim World League and the Union of French Islamic Organisations in a lawsuit. The documentary takes us through the case, introducing us to the lawyers on each side and the rest of the key players in the affair. We quickly see how French society and its elites mobilized to defend freedom of expression, no matter how provocative.
France’s current President, Françcois Hollande testified at the 2007 court case in support of the publication. “There are certain freedoms that are not up for discussion he told reporters gathered outside the proceedings. Nicolas Sarkozy, who at that time was on his way to becoming President, wrote a strong letter of support, defending the magazine which had often ridiculed him. Sarkozy went on to state in his letter, “Je l’excès de caricature à l’absence de caricature. / “I prefer excessive cartoons to no cartoons at all. Ségolène Royal comes across poorly in the film. Instead of making a public statement, she voices her support through a discreet text message to the magazine’s editor. It’s worth noting these three politicians are some of the biggest names in French politics and come from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.
One of France’s most prominent intellectuals, Elisabeth Badinter testified at the court proceedings. In the clip above, she outlines why it was essential to give Charlie Hebdo freedom of expression by saying: “If the court were to side with the [Islamic] plaintiffs [against the press], we will no longer be able to speak. We’ll be terrorized and there will be silence. Silence will fall onto a democratic society, which will be seized‚ by‚ terror.
Towards the end of the film, we hear from Richard Malka, Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer who went all in with his closing statements. He argued that the Islamic plaintiffs were seeking special treatment by calling for the ban of depictions of Muhammad and in contrast, presented the court some of Charlie Hebdo’s most outrageous drawings targeting other religions. Christianity was particularly targeted, with priests being depicted as pedophiles and images of baby Jesus having his brains blown out by a pistol. The drawings were so outrageous that the entire courtroom was in stitches.
In the end, the judge sided with Charlie Hebdo and threw the case out. Philippe Val, the co-founder of Charlie Hebdo and the de facto star of the film had a memorable reply when asked if he felt validated to see the French Republic side with him and his magazine. He responded: “To see her side with herself. Throughout the film, Val talked about how badly he wanted to win this court case. In the video clip above he tells reporters gathered at the press conference that when he heard then President of France, Jacques Chirac describe the cartoons at as a provocation, he had the impression of living in another country. “Exercising one’s rights is never a provocation in a democracy, he argued.
France has a long history of free speech and an aversion to politically correct groupthink. If Islamic plaintiffs had been able to silence Charlie Hebdo through the country’s own courts, it would have been a direct assault on the nation’s culture. Freedom of expression must be vigorously defended is the overarching message of the film.
This documentary provides excellent context and thoughtful commentary on an issue that France has been wrestling with for years and that many more Western countries will soon have to confront. If you get a chance to watch it in theatres or online, I recommend it.