It takes a lot these days to get me into downtown Sacramento, especially at night. Too much meh going around these days.
The occasion drawing me out of the house last night was "Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy," a French documentary showcasing the work, trials and passions of cartoon satirists from around the world.
Plus, Sacramento Bee editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman was going to be there for a panel discussion, and it was a chance to meet him. After I had complimented him on some work a while back, he unexpectedly invited me to lunch, but we could never get on track. After a while it felt like I was stalking him — "Look! You promised lunch!" — so I dropped it.
(Note to Bob: I tried, man. I really tried.)The Sacramento French Film Festival hosted the screening in response to the Paris shootings early this month in which staff and veteran cartoonists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were killed. The shooters, who died later after taking hostages, said they had done so to avenge offense Charlie cartoonists had committed to Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad.
Though the documentary by Stéphanie Valloatto does not include Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and was finished before the shootings, it captures the palpable tension cartoonists face across the world, and the courage with which they persist.
"Cartoonists" yesterday received a nomination as top documentary for the César Award, the French Oscar.
Hopscotching around the world, the film features cartoonists in Russia, China, Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Tunisia, Israel, Palestine, the Ivory Coast and Mexico. The United States is represented by Jeff Danziger, a syndicated cartoonist — one of the nation's most acerbic — who doesn't work for a newspaper. More on that later.
Jean Plantureux, a French cartoonist for Le Monde, serves as the thread running through the documentary. Plantu, as he's called, created Cartooning for Peace, a kind of Doctors Without Borders, except with ink-stained wretches. In the movie he travels to Israel, where the Israeli cartoonist, Michel Kichka, and Palestinian satirist, Baha Boukhari, are friends united in their fight against armed conflict and universal hypocrisy.
"Cartoonists" also introduces viewers briefly to Ali Farzat, a Syrian cartoonist, now in exile, whose hands were broken in 2011 by Syrian security forces for satirizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad … Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist infamous for depicting Muhammad with a bomb in a turban and igniting violent protests and persistent debate about free speech … and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist whose work critical of government corruption has banned him from being able to leave his country.
|OK, one more cartoon. Strike while the rare opportunity arises, right?|
How was the movie? As a survey of editorial cartooning and satire worldwide, it's instructive for bursting our bubble that cartooning is only a U.S. or Western medium. Some of the cartoonists featured face constant surveillance, ostracism and death threats. Damien Glez reports news by publishing a cartoon-heavy paper in Burkina Faso for a largely illiterate population.
Too many cartoonists, though, spoiled the broth. The movie should have focused on three or four cartoonists — I was most intrigued by Rayma Suprani of Venezuela, one of too few women cartoonists, who describes the daily oppression of life under presidents Hugo Chåvez and now Nicolås Maduro; and Pi San, an animator whose political cartoons use the Internet to spread word of corrupt practices.
But just as I thought the movie would focus on one cartoonist's approach to a controversial issue, another cartoonist was introduced. Then another, then another. OK, maybe now they'll show the fallout of a particular cartoon and — no, here's another cartoonist.
Watch it on your friendly neighborhood streaming service. And learn French: Though it's subtitled, the text is white and so, it turns out, is the paper the cartoonists use. Too often when a cartoonist made a salient point, it was lost in white letters on a white background as the director showed the cartoonist's work.
Lost to this arrogant imperialist monolingualist, anyway. Maybe the director was sticking it to me.
I'm glad I went, though. The Crest Theatre, a movie palace from another age, just a skinny city block over from the state capitol building, still looks as good as the day nearly 20 years ago when I was minister-for-a-day and presided over the wedding of graphic designers Paul and Julie. The theater is still cuckoo for rococo —great gold-painted plaster torches, uplit in fierce orange and yellow, along the walls, recessed ceiling spaces high overhead, lit in blue above vast gold friezes, like sapphire pools suspended upside down.
And great acoustics! I could easily hear a woodworking, bluegrass banjo playing, horse-hoof clipping, globetrotting man (he told quite the nonstop story!) translate "Je Suis Charlie," which blazed big on the movie screen before the show started, for his date. I couldn't tell if his date was being coy, overthinking it or had just come from under a rock. "I'd like to learn a language," she said.
And I got to meet Jack Ohman. He didn't recognize my name, not that I expected him too. It was late, everyone was tired, and I was following a man who had buttonholed Ohman to draw cartoons exposing the Kennedy assassination coverup ("It's all bullshit," said Ohman, apparently a student of the assassination. "There's no credible evidence."). He was gracious but the energy for a quick visit was gone. And so it went, as it has gone for just about any person of note whom I'd like to meet. It's what I get for being polite.
Ohman was not optimistic for the future of the pen. He is president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, which numbers 50 nationwide. When he started 37 years ago, the United States had more than 250 full-time cartoonists. Editorial cartoonists, he told the audience, are only as good as their editors are brave. Danziger no longer draws for a newspaper.
It was telling that Danziger, the lone American cartoonist in the documentary, said he was too afraid to put his name to one work that went unpublished. It was on par with the salacious work French cartoonists produce regularly. Titled, "Cheney, Dick," it showed a naked former vice president from the back, holding a used condom over a toilet bowl. The condom bears the likeness of George W. Bush.
Robert Salladay, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, told the crowd he was more optimistic about holding power accountable, though he cautioned that even though the Internet has spread the message, the message itself is getting atomized to smaller and smaller audiences. His center relies on massive donations to do its work.
People have every right to offend and be offended, Salladay said, but no right to violence and murder for their offense. When it happens, all debate must cease, and satirists should redouble their efforts to skewer.
Cartoonist Plantu said the satirists' greatest fear is the people's fear. A people afraid, he said, will not be brave enough to accept the truth and do something about it.