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SIFF ADVANCE: Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF ADVANCE: Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy
Directing: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian walk up to the Wailing Wall . . . and they all stand for the same thing: freedom of speech and expression. This is what bonds them, within the context of the profession they all have in common: drawing political cartoons.

Surely there are more dangerous professions than drawing political cartoons, and far more hazardous zones in which literal foot soldiers might venture. But there's something to be said for the symbolism at play here, on multiple levels, and particularly in light of the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year -- which is not addressed in the documentary Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy, because it was completed a year ago. Recent events simply serve to drive its point home.

It's point isn't particularly clear, mind you; director Stéphanie Valloatto simply profiles twelve political cartoonists from around the world, and shows what kinds of challenges they face within the contexts of their political systems. This does make for a fascinating lens on world cultures, showing how they all face essentially the same struggles against censorship, but at different extremes.

In some cases, this forces cartoonists to be even more creative, and arguably results in better work. When Venezuelan cartoonist Rayma Surprani faced the prohibition of any drawings of Hugo Chavez, she started drawing fruit, such as bananas, with a crown to represent him. Sometimes even more pointed commentary can be made within the confines of censorship.

This is a French film, so the dialogue does lean heavily French, but in all likelihood anyone around the world would spend a lot of time reading subtitles on this movie, since every interview subject speaks in their native language. The one American cartoonist, from New York, Danziger, without much effort speaks to the fertile ground of American politics to mock or satirize -- but also the greater freedom he has than most with which to do it. That said, he does at one point show us a relatively explicit cartoon he draw called "Cheney's Dick" which he admits would never have been published in any paper. It gets a good laugh, though, and is one of several cartoons that bring some levity to the situations many of these people face.

Sometimes, though, the film's subtitles offer a unique challenge. Subtitles are not usually difficult to get used to, but they can be difficult to keep up with when also trying to process the content of a drawing, and their translated texts, at the same time. Valloatto might have done better to show the examples of cartoons within pauses of dialogue, to give the viewer more time to absorb all the information. With talented political cartoonists, which all twelve profiled here are, the cartoons convey complex political and symbolic messages, and Vollatto crams a whole lot of it into the space of an hour and 46 minutes. Important information can easily get missed.

Still, the representative sample in this film includes an impressive amount of diversity, with cartoonists from every habitable continent. It's sad to hear someone lament the way the word "freedom" has been co-opted and misused by oppressive governments, but inspiring to see the way these professionals subvert them (Chinese artist Pi San is a particularly interesting case). In some cases, their work really is quite literally dangerous.

And if nothing else, Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy proves that this specific work is not so easily dismissible as many might think. When it comes to the specific issue of freedom of expression, these are people with huge platforms that reach the public in their respective countries, putting them, indeed, on the front lines. One artist in Africa notes that many of their readers are illiterate, but they can recognize the characters drawn and glean the message. What could be more important than that?

Russian cartoonist Zlatkovsky is one of twelve political cartoonists around the world profiled in CARTOONISTS: FOOT SOLDIERS OF DEMOCRACY.

Overall: B
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