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Cannes Review: ‘Cartoonists, Foot Soldiers of Democracy,’ a Winning Picture of Political Caricaturists

Cannes Review: 'Cartoonists, Foot Soldiers of Democracy,' a Winning Picture of Political Caricaturists

French director Stephanie Valloatto calls them foot soldiers
but I see them more as canaries (though they tend to squawk rather than sing or
chirp). They are political cartoonists, and although their value in the age of
Stewart and Colbert has perhaps lessened, in much of the world not blessed with
a pop culture machine, they are still important measures of press freedom. So
it was a very good idea to make a film about 12 of them, “Cartoonists:
Foot Soldiers of Democracy.”

Valloatto’s method is pretty basic: She visits each of the
cartoonists – in France, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Israel and Palestine, the
U.S., Venezuela, Tunisia, Russia, China, Burkina Faso and Mexico — and
interviews them, then edits it together. Cinematically, the results are a bit
like a trip around the world — you can’t really complain about the tour, which
is after all highly interesting and informative, but you could wish to stay in
one place a bit longer, to hear and see a bit more about a particular place and
culture. 

Valloatto and team also show a bit of homeland prejudice in
putting a clear emphasis on the French cartoonist Plantu. Granted, he is co-conceiver
of the project and he’s one of the better personalities, but still. That said,
he’s also one of the better storylines, along with his counterparts in
Jerusalem and the Gaza strip, all of them friends. A highlight of the film is
the three of them meeting in Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Saha Boukhari
shows Plantu and Israeli cartoonist Michel
Kichka his childhood home – that of his grandfather, which, like Israel
itself, he may now only visit like a tourist, through a turnstile.

Other
highlights include the sequences on two young women cartoonists — Tunisia’s Nadia
Khiari and Rayma Suprami in Venezuela. Khiari, whose Willis From Tunis cat
character became a viral sensation, talks of contemporary threats to Tunisia’s
traditionally open society and how she is today in the unusual position in the
Middle East of having to fight not for new rights but to keep the remarkable
rights women already have. Suprami, highly critical of the Chavez regime, has
been the recipient of much verbal and printed abuse, yet she remains undaunted.
When illustration of the president’s face was banned, she responded by drawing
a banana topped by a crown, to great effect. Both women show remarkable bravery
and resolve. 

Another cartoonist under threat, in the past and at present,
is the Russian Mikhail
Zlatkovsky, who had to drive a taxi to meet ends in earlier times and is now
banned from publishing in Russia. Shown dancing at the home he built, complete
with large drawing studio, his fine spirit presses on. The Mexico-based Cuban Angel
Boligan was told when he arrived in Mexico years ago to avoid the holy trinity
of the President, the Army and the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Needless to say, he
notes contentedly, the trinity provides themes for the majority of his work.

The most disappointing sequence is that on the American Jeff
Danziger, perhaps because of the job’s lessening value in the U.S., or maybe
because he’s simply not all that personable on film (though it does not seem
that Valloatto put in much effort). It’s a shame because of the strong US history
of political cartooning and its many excellent contemporary practitioners. She
might also have included a Tom Tomorrow or Mr. Fish to show where younger
cartoonists are taking the field. It’s a different game in the U.S., of course,
with almost total freedom, yet in such a powerful country, pushing the political
envelope can be as, if not more, important. Danziger shows a cartoon he never
published, not surprisingly. Entitled “Cheney, Dick,” it shows the
former vice president dropping into the toilet a used condom with a likeness of
President Bush on it.

Foot
soldiers, canaries and envelope pushers. I like the film’s French title, “Caricaturiste:
Fantassins de la Democratie,” which suggests two other aspects of these men
and women — fantasists and assassins. They are those as well.

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