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Review: Cartoonists, Foot Soldiers Of Democracy

BY JOSH WHITE

The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre catalysed an almost universal discourse on the right to free speech, particularly free speech published in the form of political cartoons.

 

 

The screening of StéphanieValloatto’sCartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracyat this year’s Durban International Film Festival is certainly a means to carry on that discourse and remind us of the sharp, brave and astoundingly creative efforts taken by these artists to reflect the social and political climate that surrounds them.

12 political cartoonists discuss their experiences and histories in this 2014 documentary. French cartoonist for Le Monde Jean Plantureux (pen-name: Plantu) allows us various glimpses at his delineations of Nicolas Sarkozy, which were often the subject of many a disapproving phone call from the former French president.We are also witness to footage of Plantugetting Yusser Arafat to draw both the Palestinian and Israeli flags andadd his signature to them. Plantu subsequently asked former Israeli president Shimon Peresto sign the same page, thus representing obviously jocular symbolic union of Israel and Palestine.This is one of the various amusing anecdotes these artists share. Belgian-born Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichla mentions his experiencein the 1990s of parodying Ariel Sharon’s corpulent frame before moving on Benjamin Netanyahu’s more agreeable visage. Venezuela’sRaymaSupranialso remembers how former president Hugo Chávez grew larger as she continued to draw him.

Of course, such stories are told to shed light on only a small part of the political cartoonist’s experience, and there is much within Foot Soldiers of Democracy that proves the job to be both risky and harrowing. The Ivory Coast’s LassaneZohoré (pen-name: Zoho) of the publication Gbichrecountsthe carnage incurredby the Ivorian Civil Wars, while Burkina Faso’sDamien Glezdiscusses the political unrest in the West African country in the late 1980’s. Cuban-Mexican cartoonist Angel Boligan mentions the limitation forced upon him when told he could not allude to the state, the military or religion in his work, while Suprani recalls the threats on her life that she has received for her cartoons. Boligan and Suprani are shown together at certain events, while Glez and Zohoré touch base at one point, proof of these artists’ camaraderie and mutual recognition.

Otherartists featured include Nadia Khiari of Tunisia, who has found a significant following on social media for the feline cartoon character Willis from Tunis.There is also Algeria’s MenouarMerabtene (pen-name: Slim); American Jeff Danziger; Palestinian Baha Boukhari; Russian Mikhail Zlatkovsky; and the animator Pi San from China, whose videos have featured on YouTube. There are also appearances by Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist responsible for the controversial 2005 representation of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban; and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.Some audience members might be annoyed at the unfortunate discrepancy between who gets the most coverage in this documentary. For example, Pi San is only featured at the beginning and very near the end of the film. In addition, there is no appearance by cartoonistsfrom other areas of Europe, Africa and Asia, which does detract from the universality of the film’s focus.

Another minor annoyance is trying to pay attention to the subtitles while also reading the translated speech within presented cartoons. That these white subtitles are set against a white screen whenever a cartoon is shown is practically moronic, but should not deter moviegoers from enjoying this enlightening glimpse into the lives and worksof experts in the field of creative chutzpah.

 

Josh White is a Masters student who has had an avid interest in film since childhood. He has written Arts and Entertainment pieces for numerous publications. He is currently in the process of starting a film blog.

 

The 36th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is organised by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (a special project of the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Humanities, Cheryl Potgieter) with support from the National Film and Video Foundation,, KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, City of Durban, German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Industrial Development Corporation, Gauteng Film Commission, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture and a range of other valued partners.

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