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The trouble with free speech

  • 12 March 2009

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

A 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