By Patty Rhule
The new documentary “Inside Charlie Hebdo” depicts a fateful 2006 editorial meeting of the French satirical newspaper where staffers joke about the consequences of their decision to reprint Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
On Jan. 7, 2015, al-Qaida terrorists stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, eight of whom were cartoonists, editors and writers at the newspaper. Their names appear on the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial.
At the film’s U.S. premiere at the Newseum Sept. 28, 2016, Véronique Brachet Cabut, the widow of slain cartoonist Jean Cabut, said the documentary shows “they knew the seriousness of what they were doing. They knew the risks. They have become famous for the sacrifices they made in the name of free speech. I hope you take from this film the way they worked together as friends and colleagues.”
In much of the Muslim world, depictions of the prophet are forbidden. The terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo said it was revenge for the cartoons of Muhammad.
Cabut — his pen name was Cabu — drew the cartoon that appeared on the cover of the February 2006 edition of Charlie Hebdo that published the Danish cartoons. Cabu’s cartoon took aim at fundamentalists, showing Muhammad with his head in his hands saying, “It’s hard to be loved by jerks.” That issue sparked a lawsuit in France by Muslim groups over free speech, which Hebdo won.
“The law could not be used to silence the cartoonists, so they were assassinated,” Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, current publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, said in a taped message.
Ann Telnaes, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The Washington Post, said the film was “quite personal to watch. We can really identify with the back and forth they do,” in the editorial process.
After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a million people took to the streets of Paris, and supporters of free speech around the world marched under the rallying cry “Je suis Charlie! (“I am Charlie!”)
Matt Wuerker, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for Politico, said “Charlie Hebdo and the stance the cartoonists and editors took did something that was magnificently grand: They stood their ground for free speech.”
Charlie Hebdo was a provocative publication, skewering politicians and religious leaders with frequently outrageous cartoons and editorials. “The paradox is Charlie Hebdo was not selling much” before the attack, said Patrick E. Weil, Oscar M. Ruebhausen Distinguished Senior Fellow, Yale Law School. “It was fighting for survival.”
Both Telnaes and Wuerker cited worrisome trends about satire today.
“Worldwide, there is a push for blasphemy laws,” said Wuerker, adding that there is a movement on the other side of the political spectrum toward providing “safe spaces” on college campuses while discussing difficult topics. “Satire is getting squeezed by both sides.”
The screening and program in the Newseum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater was part of a partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Washington Ideas Week.