Four days after armed Islamic gunmen burst through the doors at 10 Rue Nicolas-Appert and murdered 12 souls inside the Parisian headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, millions took to the streets in an unprecedented show of solidarity as the world watched, declaring “Je suis Charlie”: “I am Charlie.”
Eight months have now passed since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and ensuing days of violence saw France unite around a common, deadly tragedy. Although it sent shockwaves through the homes and newsrooms of the world, some fear that the events of January 7 are fading too fast from collective cultural memory.
In the new documentary Je suis Charlie, father-son filmmakers Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte chronicle the heart-rending aftermath of the deadly shootings and the controversial newspaper’s past, present, and future, revitalizing the memory of those killed in the attack. In doing so, they also answer the question: Who is Charlie?
“You have to realize that the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo are sort of a monument for everyone in France,” began Emmanuel Leconte, speaking with The Daily Beast from the Toronto Film Festival where he and father Daniel premiered Je suis Charlie this week.
“When I was a kid, on TV there was Cabu, one of the cartoonists who was killed, on a morning show teaching kids how to draw. I’ve been used to seeing Cabu and Wolinsky and all those guys since I was a little boy. They were just people who were opening up new avenues for us—in drawing, debate, humor, and transgressive attitudes.”
Over the years Leconte grew closer to the satirical elder statesmen of Charlie Hebdo, particularly when his father, Daniel Leconte, made his 2008 documentary It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks about the 2007 court trial that ensued when Charlie Hebdo republished controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
When several of the paper’s leading voices were killed in the January 7 attack that left 11 dead and 11 more wounded, Emmanuel felt the loss personally. Daniel, he says, “was completely devastated.”
The younger Leconte persuaded his father to mourn through cinema, combing through intimate footage from Daniel’s previous documentary for insights from the fallen cartoonists. When survivors of the traumatic attack agreed to sit for new interviews just two months later, the Lecontes began crafting a cinematic ode to the memory and values of the Charlie Hebdo victims.
Thanks to their ties to Charlie Hebdo, the Lecontes were given startling access to survivors like cartoonist Riss, who was present that day and recalls the instant realization that the newsroom was under attack.
“I didn’t wait for the shooting to start,” says Riss. He dropped to the ground and was nonetheless shot in the shoulder—but still managed to draw four new pieces for the January 14 edition printed to show to the world and to the attackers that the paper was still, defiantly, alive.
Eric Portheault gravely describes retreating behind his desk when shots rang out during the morning editorial meeting. He witnessed one attacker coldly execute a colleague in front of his eyes, then waited a few harrowing minutes in silence after the gunmen fled. When the killing had subsided, the office dog padded over to Portheault’s side and obscured his face, he muses, as if to shield him from the horrors outside.
Cartoonist Corinne “Coco” Rey shares the most tormented testimonial of them all. Visibly upset, she recounts how the two gunmen first approached her, recognizing her and calling her by name before forcing her to punch in the security code that would lead them to her unsuspecting colleagues.
“They said, ‘No jokes, no jokes,’” she says, tearfully recalling how they identified themselves as al Qaeda. They were looking for Stéphane Charbonnier aka Charb, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief. “That’s when I thought I was going to die. I put my hands behind my head. I was panicking. That’s when it dawned on me, after coming upstairs, that it could all end right there.”
Filmed just eight weeks after the attack, emotionally-charged interviews like Coco’s give Je suis Charlie the kind of indelible shell-shocked heartbreak that’s not easily forgotten. Leconte says remembrances like hers also served as a form of therapy for the survivors, who barely had time to recover before charging ahead with a “Survivors’ edition” one week later.
“Coco’s testimony is incredible,” says Leconte. “I think it’s incredibly strong and honest and beautiful. I think it’s important for people to hear that, because people know what it’s like to live in a world with modern terrorism but they probably don’t realize the horror of what it can be like to live through an attack like this.”
Je suis Charlie is, quite overtly, not an objective document. Like Charlie Hebdo itself, the film takes pointed jabs at what it deems deserving parties, like the French media. If other publications had dared to publish the controversial Prophet Muhammad ‘toons that first made Charlie Hebdo a target for fundamentalist Islamic extremists in 2006, the film states in dramatic narration, “Maybe we wouldn’t be here, mourning our friends.”
“We have a very subjective view,” admits Leconte. “This is our opinion, and it’s something we feel very strongly about. We’re not trying to be objective journalists. Of course, it comes from a feeling, from the aftermath of what happened in January. Had everyone republished the Danish cartoon, what could the terrorists do? Who would they have targeted? By not showing solidarity in this, in some way, indirectly, they pointed fingers at Charlie Hebdo.”
In archival footage, the 76-year-old cartoonist Cabu, one of the victims killed in the shootings, claims he never knew that Muslim doctrine forbids even drawings of Muhammad. “I’m an atheist!” he shrugs, smiling.
“When I draw Muslim religious extremists, I’m addressing extremists, not Muslims,” declares Charb, the primary target of the attacks. His words to his enemies echo from beyond the grave: “You can respond to a drawing or words without declaring war or personally eliminating your detractors.”
Is Charlie Hebdo, as The Daily Beast wrote recently, the most misunderstood magazine in history? Muslim extremists surely won’t be the last to take offense to Charlie’s brand of sociopolitical satire. Leconte blames a contemporary culture that has become consumed with demanding justice for every perceived offense. Even the allotment of millions of dollars collected in the name of the victims’ families has been met with rampant media speculation (Leconte says an independent committee is devising a plan to allocate the funds.)
“There’s a very big difference in today’s world between, for example, a cartoon that is fundamentally racist and a cartoon that is experienced as being racist,” he said. “Of course the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are not racist, but that does not prevent them from being experienced as racist. There are people who think being offended is something that gives you the right to demand reparation, to demand condemnation.”
“Charlie Hebdo has, in a way, been carrying that load for all of us,” he continued. “Hopefully what happens is that people will realize that it’s not only them—they’re fighting for something that belongs to all of us. Of course we don’t want to target people, we don’t want to humiliate people, we don’t want to discriminate groups.”
“But we need to have the right to debate, speak, be artists, and criticize those who are using big totems or venerated figures to kill others. That is the least creators and free thinkers should have the right to do in this world,” added Leconte.
The film takes pains to connect the dots between the Charlie Hebdo attack and the rise of anti-Semitism and racism, painting the shooting tragedy as part of a much larger problem in France.
“But it’s not just because [Charlie Hebdo] made a caricature that they were killed,” said Leconte. “They were killed because they were part of a set of values that we all attached to. During this terrorist attack, what has happened? They tried to kill Charlie, to attack a newspaper—an element of culture and intelligence, of the human mind.”
“Then they attacked policemen and women, who represented the foundation of the republic and of the state, the cohesive nature of why we live in a society,” he said. “And then they wanted to kill French Jews. Of course, the Jewish community has always been a symbol of the other, in a culture of difference."
Je suis Charlie closes with home videos of the slain cartoonists in full vivid glory—singing effusively at karaoke, sharing stories, smiling. Leconte and Leconte hope their documentary helps bring the spirit of Charlie Hebdo to supporters old and new, and across the globe. In the months since the attacks, Emmanuel says, they’ve felt an undeniable change in France.
“We didn’t want the film to just be a funeral. We wanted to show that these people were full of life, and loved life, because that’s who they were and that’s the spirit the survivors are trying to carry on,” he shared. “We’re convinced that there is a generation that will be marked by this event. We don’t know how, we don’t know why, but we think that something was triggered.”
"What’s for sure is that the spirit of January 11th is fragile—something we need to keep pushing. Charlie Hebdo was important, of course, but we mustn’t forget that it was broader than that. It concerns us all. What was attacked was a society. It could have been anywhere else in the world.”