France: Mohammed caricatures documentary at Cannes festival

A French film championing freedom of expression against attempts by Muslim activists to censor caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed highlighted a key front in the culture wars at the Cannes festival.

"It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks" by Daniel Leconte takes as its subject a bitter legal battle by the editor of a French weekly who was acquitted last year on charges of offending Muslims for reprinting the offending cartoons.

The landmark trial was seen as an important test for freedom of expression in France, after the publication of the "blasphemous" caricatures sparked violent protests by Muslims worldwide.

Philippe Val, who runs the leftist satirical Charlie Hebdo weekly, was sued by two Muslim organizations which argued that the cartoons, first printed by a Danish newspaper, drew an offensive link between Islam and terrorism.

One of the three drawings in question was a French cartoonist showing a despondent Mohammed holding his head in his hands, muttering the film's title, under the caption "Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists."

The key players in the high-profile trial get a chance to speak in the two-hour documentary, which maintains a brisk pace with dashes of humour.

Leconte said he had not aimed to pour oil on the fire in tackling the sensitive subject.

"The film is intended to ease tensions, not exacerbate them," he told reporters in Cannes. "The trial and its verdict were historic, redefining the line between the religious and the political."

Leconte said that while interest in the project was sizeable, the financing was hard to come by due to the sensitivity of the subject. "The television networks refused to back the film," Leconte said.

One of the sharpest exchanges in the film occurs when Richard Malka, one of the lawyers for Charlie Hebdo, asks the Muslim plaintiffs whether they aim to be treated like other religions in France.

He then cites a raft of caricatures over the last decade that have been far more shocking in their views on Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism.

"Until now, Christians have been treated 10 times more insultingly by Charlie than Muslims," Malka argues. "But be careful, if that is what you really want, we'll take your word for it."

In one chilling passage, the director of the Holocaust film "Shoah", Claude Lanzmann, says: "If the plaintiffs win this case, we won't wake up in the same France."

A few of those interviewed imply that the French government was secretly behind the lawsuit to send a conciliatory message to Middle Eastern countries to protect its interests in the region. Film industry bible Variety gave the picture a rave review at Cannes, saying it "offers a strong example of individuals unafraid to stand up for basic but sometimes neglected principles even in the face of heavy intimidation and even death threats."

The Hollywood Reporter called it "rousing, if hilariously biased" in favour of the magazine, but added "you'll be cheering for Charlie and for its crucial defense of freedom of speech, no matter what your politics are."

Source: European Jewish Press (English)

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