In September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of caricatures under the title ‘The face of Muhammad’, and a storm of criticism and outrage from Muslim groups ensued. Death threats led to the torching of several Danish embassies in Islamic countries, with protests and even deaths as the result. In February 2006 the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo published their response to the idea that Islam and its symbols should not be open to satire, reprinting the original twelve images and adding their own – including the cover image of Muhammad weeping under the heading ‘Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists’. The voice bubble translates as ‘it’s hard to be loved by jerks’.
The response in France led to several Muslim groups taking Charlie Hebdo and its editor Philippe Val to court charging them with racism. Particularly affronting was the image of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Following the immediate pre-trial period, the trial itself and its verdict, filmmaker Daniel Leconte has produced an entertaining and inspiring documentary about the principle of free speech and the role of the free press. Additionally, Leconte and his subjects dare to address the question of whether religion should be material for satire.
It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks is a rather wonderful film, which contains several moments of real insight. All the players are interviewed, and in spite of Leconte’s own opinion being immediately obvious he gets to talk with the lead prosecution lawyer Francis Szpiner, as well as representatives of the Muslim communities involved in the case (The Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organisations). This isn’t an entirely even-handed production, but the best documentaries often start with a particular point to make and Leconte certainly makes his.
Of the subjects interviewed, several stand out as showing particular insight into the issues that swirl around such a politically charged debate. Philippe Val, although at times seemingly enjoying it all, does produce a couple of answers that really strike to the heart of the matter. A French philosopher also makes several extremely sensible statements about the implications of the court action.
The main flaw of the film is the time taken during the court case – the two days of the trial are over-represented in time on screen, and perhaps less focus on conveying every witness’s testimony might have allowed the film to maintain the pace it begins with. Additionally, there are several well-known figures of French society whose significance goes unexplained. A subtitle detailing each subject’s relevance would be useful for international audiences.
The use of caricatures to emphasise the point of the live action on screen is amusing and considering the story’s grounding seems especially apt. Watercolour intertitles are also effective. The superimposition of the cartoon subjects under discussion at relevant moments allows the discussion to remain grounded in the reality of what was originally published.
It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks is an entertaining and challenging documentary that achieves its goal of exploring the issues raised by legal action against Charlie Hebdo for daring to republish the offensive imagery as a discussion point on the value of free speech. Highly recommended.Rating: