It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks is an almost two hour French documentary about a court case wherein the French leftist, anarchist, satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was sued for reprinting the controversial Danish cartoons about Mohammed that enraged so many Muslims around the world. (“Hebdo” means “weekly,” and “Charlie” comes at least indirectly from “Charlie Brown” of Peanuts, though it also has some loose association with Charles DeGaulle.)
The lawsuit is based on a French law against insulting people for their religious beliefs. France has some degree of law and tradition on the side of free speech, but not anything as extreme as the American First Amendment. As is true even in most democracies, free speech in France is balanced with other values. A Muslim arguing outside the courtroom at one point insists “We’re not America!” meaning you can’t simply cite a right to free speech to justify saying anything and everything.
A lawsuit like this in the United States absolutely should lose. That doesn’t mean it would, since not everything that’s done in the American legal system is in conformity with law and the Constitution, but if it were, this case would be a no-brainer. But in France, there’s an argument to be made either way.
A legal argument, that is. On the non-legal merits of the dispute, certainly I’d root for the free speech side.
The defendants’ argument roughly was that the cartoons were directed not at all Muslims indiscriminately, but at those who use Islam to attempt to justify terrorism. And while Muslims are a legally protected group you can’t make fun of, terrorists or Muslim terrorists are not.
The issue is an important one to me, but I struggled a bit to stay interested in the movie. They couldn’t film in the courtroom, so the bulk of the movie consists of witnesses recounting their testimony to reporters outside the courtroom afterward, or being interviewed for the film later (“I said this, then the judge said this, then I said this…”). That plus the plaintiffs and their lawyers and the defendants and their lawyers being interviewed (far more of the defendants and their lawyers).
And mostly that’s just not that scintillating. It’s not terrible, but it can get a little dull over the course of two hours.
Also, I wonder if subtitles are a factor. A lot of times with foreign movies, even though subtitles are a bit of a strain, I adjust to them after a few minutes and am barely conscious of them after that. But a content-heavy, interview-heavy documentary like this feels more taxing to me. I felt like I spent two hours reading something only mildly interesting.
There are some good moments though. One that tickled me is when one of the fellows from Charlie Hebdo recounts that when he was sitting behind the plaintiffs’ table and they would pass on the opportunity to question a defendant witness, he would taunt them by murmuring “Chicken! Chicken!”
Maybe the best part though came from one of the defendants’ lawyers. In closing arguments, apparently without telling anyone in advance that he was going to do it—the defendants say in the interviews they were surprised when he did it and were sure it was a blunder—he challenged the plaintiffs’ claim that Muslims were being singled out and attacked as an unpopular minority. They only wanted the same respect, the same treatment as everyone else, they insisted.
Oh yeah? said the defendants’ attorney, you just want to be treated like everyone else? OK, let’s see how everyone else is treated.
And he proceeded to show Charlie Hebdo anti-religion cartoons from over the years, against Catholics, Protestants, Jews, even Buddhists. All far, far more denigrating than any of the controversial Mohammed cartoons. At least according to how it’s recounted in the interviews, the people in the courtroom were unable to suppress their laughter, and soon the judge, the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the spectators, etc. were laughing in their sleeves at Jesus and the Pope and such in various sexual and scatological positions that sound almost like something you’d see in Hustler.
It certainly made the point that Muslims weren’t being singled out for special abuse. (Though even if they were, it shouldn’t matter for free speech purposes.)
It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks is a worthwhile documentary and I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from seeing it, but I was only into it to a limited degree.
(The title, by the way, comes from the caption of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Mohammed, contemplating the violence and fanaticism of some of his most fervent followers has his hands over his eyes and is muttering “It’s hard being loved by jerks!”)