The trouble with free speech


It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks (C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons): 118 minutes. Director: Daniel Leconte

It's Hard Being Loved By JerksA sign posted at the base of Uluru bears a request from the site's traditional owners, the Anangu community, that visitors not climb the rock. It's not just a matter of sacredness. The climb is dangerous, and they feel responsibile for those who visit their land.

For many tourists a discrepancy of values comes into play. Western individualism asserts itself against the notion of communal responsibility. 'The traditional owners are not responsible for me. I am responsible for myself.' Some of these tourists subsequently ignore the request, and climb Uluru.

But of course, it's not a question of values, but one of respect. To respect the Anangu as the traditional owners demands respecting their wishes, whether you agree with their reasons or not. You do not decide to smoke in a non-smoker's house, in the name of free expression.

So it is that the 2006–2007 controversy surrounding the publication in Denmark of several satirical cartoons, portraying the prophet Muhammad and deemed offensive to Muslims is not as clear-cut as the makers of It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks might have us think.

The lively and engaging documentary recounts the trial of French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, taken to court by the Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organisations for its republication of the notorious Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons.

In addition to those cartoons, including one of a beady-eyed, coarse-black-bearded Muhammad with a sparking bomb in his turban, the paper featured an original cover image, titled 'Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists', in which a distraught Muhammad tearfully declares: 'It's hard being loved by jerks'.

To the plaintiffs, the cartoons are racist: the images not only link all Muslims to terrorism but also label them universally as 'jerks'. But the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo insist that the target of the sleight is not all Muslims, but only fundamentalists and extremists.

The documentary is lively and engaging, and admittedly that's due in part to its unashamed one-sidedness. To the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and to documentarian Daniel Leconte, the debate can be reduced to a simple dichotomy of free speech versus obscurantism.

No courtroom footage is presented. Instead Leconte spends a good deal of the film's two-hour running time allowing key players, including Charlie Hebdo's passionate, if arrogant, editor Philippe Val, to wax lyrical on the unassailable value of free speech in a democratic society, and openly mock the absurdity of the trial.

Leconte does present scenes that take place in the foyer outside the courtroom, where members of the public cram together and debate the cartoons' merits. This evokes the broader conversation about free speech that, prompted by the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo cases, was taking place throughout the world at the time.

Only one dissenting voice is featured, that of Francis Szpiner, chief attorney for the plaintiffs, and he presents as an officious little twerp unlikely to win anyone's sympathies. There's a marked contrast between Leconte's interrogation of Szpiner, and his chuckling affability when conversing with Val et al.

If it's clear where Leconte's sympathies lie, then these sympathies are very likely shared by most Western viewers — this reviewer included. I believe satire is a powerful tool for interrogating the status quo and provoking thought on tough issues. Free speech is an important value in democratic society.

But as with Uluru tourism, it is a mistake to focus only on such values, and not on respect. If something causes offence, it is problematic to place blame on the one who is offended. Some moderate Muslims did perceive the cartoons as equating all of Islam with terrorism. Can their feelings be easily written off in the name of free speech?

It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks is screening as part of the Alliance Francais French Film Festival, touring Australia March-April 2009.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Daniel Leconte, charlie hebdo, Union of French Islamic Organisations, Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons



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Existing comments

the 'interrogator' is ignorant of the facts ... are they not? Therefore, any free speech emanating from an 'interrogator' is merely assumptions which have no place in a debate of any description

Greig Williams | 12 March 2009  

Yes Tim, respect is an important issue, but respect is not totally denied by satire. A.D.Hope wrote in the preface to his Dunciad Minor published in 1970,'[Satire's] purpose is, by isolating and making it ridiculous, to put in a clear light the perversity of judgment and the lapses of sense from which the greatest wits are not immune and which may be concealed from themselves and others precisely because of their eminence in other respects. Its purpose is not to deny, even by implication, their real merits and achievements but to laugh them out of the follies which corrode the virtue of these achievements.'

At least, in this case, the complaint was pursued in a civilised fashion in a court, and not by the fatwah that so notoriously pursued Salman Rushdie, but even so, hypersensitivity to criticism and implacable determination to suppress it do not win a lot of sympathy or respect.

Joe Castley | 12 March 2009  

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