Wednesday, 14 May 2014


When 12 cartoonists from around the world walk up the red-carpeted stairs at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, human rights and freedom of expression will also be in the spotlight.

The official poster.
The cartoonists are the “stars” of a new film that is part of the official selection of the festival, which runs from May 14 to 25 in the southern French town.

Titled Caricaturistes - Fantassins de la Démocratie (Cartoonists - Foot Soldiers of Democracy), the documentary looks at the “daily battles” that these satirists face as they use “only a pencil as weapon”, according to its French director Stéphanie Valloatto.

The film features cartoonists from Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, France, Israel, Venezuela and other countries, and follows them as they confront threats and official repression because of their work.

It profiles Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, for instance, who in 2011 was badly beaten by security forces who symbolically tried to destroy his hands.

Plastic surgery eventually saved Ferzat’s fingers, after a campaign to get him out of Syria was launched by Cartooning for Peace, a non-profit association co-founded in 2006 by renowned French cartoonist Plantu and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The organisation, which partly inspired the film, aims to foster dialogue, promote freedom of expression and recognise the journalistic work of cartoonists. 

Plantu and Kofi Annan
It was formed in the wake of protests and riots around the world sparked by Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, and it currently comprises more than 100 cartoonists representing 40 nationalities and all the world’s major religions.

Valloatto told SWAN that the group was instrumental in the making of “Foot Soldiers” because it facilitated access to the cartoonists. In addition, the movie producer and director Radu Mihaileanu had long admired the association’s human-rights work and Plantu’s campaign for tolerance. 

“Radu had the idea to do the film and he asked me to come on board because I’ve been making documentaries while he does feature films - movies that are really humane,” recalled Valloatto, known in French television circles for her socially engaged documentary projects.

Director Stephanie Valloatta
“Once I got to know Plantu and the work of Cartooning for Peace, I too was really impressed by what they’re doing,” she added. She and Mihaileanu co-wrote the scenario, and Mihaileanu took on the role of producer.

Apart from Ferzat, the documentary profiles other satirists who operate in dangerous political domains. They include rare women cartoonists such as Rayma Suprani and Nadia Khiari (Willis from Tunis), members of Cartooning for Peace.

Suprani, who works for the newspaper El Universal in Caracas, Venezuela, has received threats because of her drawings criticizing the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Both Cartooning for Peace and Amnesty International have highlighted her case.

“I don’t think the threats are based solely on gender,” Rayma told SWAN in an interview. “It’s not because of your genital organs, but it’s because you have a brain and you can think.”

Khiari of Tunisia, whose trademark character is an acerbic cat, has said that despite intimidation, one way to achieve change is to continue to protest, whether on the streets on in cartoons and blogs.

Nadia Khiari, aka Willis from Tunis
She got into cartooning because of a major political event in her country. An artist and art teacher, she launched Willis from Tunis during the “Jasmine Revolution” that led to the Arab Spring, taking her pseudonym from the name of her cat, Willis, who was born during the last speech of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“The president was there promising press freedom and a host of other things, and the absurdity of the speech inspired me to do some cartoons,” she recalled of the beginning in 2011. “Of course I didn’t know then that this would be his last speech.”

Her work also derides attempts to suppress women and freedom of expression, and some of her cartoons take particular aim at the hypocrisy of “gender politics” in the North African region.

Glez, by himself (courtesy of CFP)
In sub-Saharan African, the film looks at the work of French-born cartoonist Damien Glez, who has lived for some 25 years in Burkina Faso where his cartoons have had enormous impact. He and fellow-cartoonist, Lassane Zohoré , based in Ivory Coast, don’t hold back from lampooning political figures, and a light moment in the film shows them laughing together over some drawings.

The documentary is not in competition for any of the main prizes in Cannes, but the stories and many of the words spoken by cartoonists will stick with viewers. Michel Kichka, the Belgian-born Israeli cartoonist, probably spoke for the profession when he said: It's impossible to do a drawing that will not offend someone. 

Despite this, the film has moments of humour as well as the serious message. "We hope it will be seen by a lot of people because it may give inspiration for all of us to fight for tolerance and human rights, no matter what sector we work in,” says Valloatto.

The film opens in cinemas in France on May 28. - A.M.

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