If ever anyone doubted that political cartoonist is a high-risk occupation, yesterday's Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris is devastating proof.
"Les Caricaturistes: Fantassins de la Démocratie" is the definitive documentary on political cartoonists from every part of the world. It's a chance to discover an NGO which helps defend their efforts on behalf of free speech, "Cartooning for Peace," begun in 2006 under the auspices of then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Le Monde's "Plantu" is the star of both film and NGO, never missing a chance to explain the art behind the message or to share the spotlight with his cherished colleagues throughout the world. Last night he was on the TV news, with his same message of perseverance in the face of the terrorism perpetrated in Paris.
This short (1.5 hours) documentary sketches sympathetic portraits of this diverse group of heroes, who all face, in varying degrees, the threat of violence (or at a minimum, exclusion) in their countries. A Syrian cartoonist whose hands are broken by Assad's thugs. A Venezuelan journalist who's called a whore and a lesbian for daring to ridicule Chavez & Co. Russia's premier political artist, who can't publish anything in Putin's Russia, and drives a night taxi to earn a living.
In the early '90s in Algeria, I remember cartoonist "Slim" taking on the establishment and the reigning social (dis)order, even before he took on the rise of Islamism (which eventually led to his exile). In a former one-party state, Slim's cartoons were of an amazing candor, and really funny: in a country where orphans of slain moujahid freedom fighters from the 1950s and 60s were provided great advantages (which led people to invent a heroic forebear), he had a 1990s baby in carriage saying, "some day, I'll be the son of a moujahid." Today, in Algeria, Ali Dilem in Liberté continues to wield his pen, and is appropriately biting about the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo journalists.
Caricaturistes of course can't include every political cartoonist; Steve Bell, the often outrageous and sometimes unfathomable (he was very clear on the Paris killings) Guardian veteran, isn't featured, nor is our own Brussels favorite, Pierre Kroll of Le Soir (here's Kroll on yesterday's murders, Morts de Rire).
Belgian-Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka believes that political correctness, even more than censorship by authorities, is the greatest threat to the freedom of expression practiced by his profession. For his part, Plantu paraphrases Franklin Roosevelt's admonition to Americans after Pearl Harbor: "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." Plantu, like his slain counterparts at Charlie Hebdo, fears nothing, except this: "I am afraid of the fear of others."
That's the wonderful thing about the wave of solidarity shown in the face of this assault on the freedom of expression, and it's the uplifting message of Caricaturistes: those in power (and those who would like to wield power at the point of a gun) fear ridicule, and the Cartoonists are there to show that the (fill in the blank) has no clothes.