TIFF ’15: Finding a way to grieve in “Je Suis Charlie”

French filmmaker Emmanuel Leconte talks to realscreen regarding the Charlie Hebdo tribute documentary Je Suis Charlie, which held its world premiere at TIFF in Toronto Wednesday (September 16).
September 18, 2015

French filmmaker Emmanuel Leconte talks to realscreen regarding the creation of the Charlie Hebdo tribute documentary Je Suis Charlie (pictured), which held its world premiere at TIFF ’15 in Toronto on Wednesday (September 16).

It was 11:30 a.m. on January 7 when cartoonist Corinne “Coco” Rey stepped out for a cigarette. Upon exiting the offices of Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, two gunmen with a cache of weapons would lead her back into the building and into the magazine’s newsroom.

The world would come to a standstill that morning. The attack that befell Paris’s 19th arrondissement would leave 12 dead – including Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief and cartoonist Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier – and 11 others wounded. Five more would be killed in the following two days; 11 others would be injured. Police would fatally wound all three extremists during an exchange of gunfire in two separate incidents.

The events galvanized France into social upheaval. World leaders from over 40 countries would join the more than two million people assembled in Paris for a rally of national unity on January 11. Charlie Hebdo‘s standing cartoonists, meanwhile, would successfully publish its most significant issue one week following the attacks on January 14.

The result saw nearly eight million copies distributed worldwide in six languages. The pen, perhaps, is mightier than the sword.

Je Suis Charlie directors Daniel, left, and Emmanuel Leconte.

In Je Suis Charlie – which premiered Wednesday (September 16) at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – father-and-son directing team Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte (pictured, left) set out to revisit the fateful week to pay tribute to the fallen who “died for a certain idea of France.”

Combing through exclusive interview footage from Daniel’s 2008 film It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks – chronicling the lawsuit undertaken by the Muslim French Council against the satirical magazine after it reprinted 12 Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad – the Lecontes posthumously amplify the voices of editor Charb, and cartoonists Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous and Honoré in the face of violent silence.

Through Je Suis Charlie, the Lecontes illustrate an intimate portrait of the pens behind the magazine by interweaving commentary from the deceased, survivors, philosophers and politicians, with an array of archival footage from home videos, news cameras, and cartoon drawings.

Ultimately, the film – produced by Daniel Leconte’s Film En Stock, exec produced by Raphaël Cohen and distributed by Pyramide International – pieces together a chronology of the tragedy, to reveal the vulnerability of life. “It’s crazy how people’s fate hinges on so little,” Coco tells the filmmakers.

Following Wednesday’s debut, Je Suis Charlie’s co-director Emmanuel Leconte talks to realscreen about the team’s approach to the sensitive subject matter, how they filled archive gaps of missing interviews and how they managed to comfort the survivors to open up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What compelled you to create Je Suis Charlie?

When the attack happened, we were thinking, ‘This is not possible, not them who were really thoughtful, who knew what the risks were but were always ready to laugh.’ When this happened I remembered that Daniel shot this film [It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks] back in 2008 when we had a lot of interviews with the cartoonists that now were dead. I decided to find this B-roll and watch it again out of a very strong sense of loss. I thought it was luminous; it’s so clever and funny, even constructive what they were proposing. Some people tried to silence and kill them, but we wanted people to hear what they have to say. We felt we had material that was very interesting and we wanted to expose it.

How were you able to gain such intimate access to the survivors so soon after the attacks?

It was very complicated. Of course, it was important for us not to rush them. I don’t think we can really imagine the emotional shock, stress and terror that they felt by going through this attack. I don’t think we realize either the media pressure that they had for weeks to come.

We were probably the only ones who had made a film about them before and had followed them during that hard time. During the first experience in 2008, nobody really thought it was that important. We took our time when we approached them [for this film]. We wanted people to hear again the voices of Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Tignous – of all those innocent guys that had been killed for what they were doing. They [surviving cartoonists] wanted to share their memories and their sense of loss.

When you began filming, did you know that the documentary would be a chronology of events?

We had nothing to shoot except what everybody saw on TV at the same time. We had footage that we knew people would be interested to watch, but we didn’t know how to organize it. We realized the chronology of events that happened between the 7th and 14th of January was extremely strong. The 7th was the attack, the 8th is the second attack, the 9th is the third attack, the 11th is the huge demonstration in Paris and the 14th – exactly a week later – is when Charlie Hebdo publishes the next issue. We followed this chronological narrative pretty strongly because it’s something that everybody lived to the core.

Can you talk about some of the more difficult aspects you encountered when putting this film together?

The most difficult was to find the right way to address the victims and the right way to ask them the questions so they didn’t have the feeling they were being interviewed by one of the thousands of journalists or [law enforcement officials] who wanted to extract information from them.

The interviews we shot with the survivors were all very serene and very calm. The energy was great, we were very stressed over how it was going to go – if they would be too hurt to talk about certain things – but they were extremely natural and happy to talk at that point.

How did you rectify moments in which you didn’t have the corresponding footage from TV cameras or commentary from since-deceased cartoonists?

What we’re trying to do with this film is pay tribute to the victims. Not only the victims of Charlie Hebdo, but also the cops that were protecting them, and the people who were in the wrong moment at the wrong time.

Sometimes we didn’t have the footage. We had interviews we shot in 2008 of many cartoonists, but not of all of them. People like Honoré or Wolinski weren’t in Paris at the time we shot, so we didn’t have a chance to film them for an interview. We used a lot of their drawings and a lot of anecdotes that their friends and survivors would share with us.

Have the survivors seen the film? What has been the general reaction to it?

Yes, they have. I think there was something cathartic about it. They were extremely moved, and some of them broke down to tears because it’s a pretty emotional film. But those who were crying said thank you because they felt their views, the identity of the people who died and the magazine, and what they believed in was portrayed in a very correct manner.

How does Je Suis Charlie differ from previous films the Lecontes have produced?

I think it’s soothing – that’s also why we did this film. We were pretty depressed for a long time after the attacks happened, and I think it was a way for us to grieve and to understand better who they were and to celebrate them.

  • Je Suis Charlie screens in Toronto on September 20 at 1 p.m. EST at Scotiabank Theatre.
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