Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left 17 people dead at the magazine and elsewhere in Paris over the course of three days.
To commemorate, Netflix released the documentary “Je Suis Charlie” by French father-son filmmakers Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte. The film has taken on tragically heightened relevance following the November terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130.
Meanwhile, Jan. 25 will mark the five-year anniversary of the start of mass protests in Egypt, a turning point in the dubbed “Arab Spring” uprisings that led to the toppling of dictators across the Arab world.
Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s award-winning chronicle of the 2011 protests, “The Square” (“Al Midan”), is also available on Netflix, which is positioning itself as a major player in documentary distribution.
Netflix co-production “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” about the mass anti-government protests that broke out in Kiev two years ago, is one of this year’s finalists for the best documentary Oscar and is also available to stream.
These films captured key global events as they were unfolding. In doing so, they illustrate the interconnectedness of events around the world, and they offer vital reflections on the values and principles that make democracy something worth fighting for.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Charlie Hebdo was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, the magazine was sued by organizations representing Islam in France for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in solidarity with a Danish newspaper that had suffered international backlash for doing the same.
Interviews from Daniel Leconte’s 2008 documentary about that legal battle (“It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks,” available on Amazon Prime) are included in “Je Suis Charlie,” and it’s haunting now to watch victims of the 2015 massacre talk about their motivations and the reactions to their work.
Equally riveting are the newer testimonies from survivors, particularly the cartoonist “Coco,” who tearfully recounts how she was forced at gunpoint to punch in the security code that let the terrorists into Charlie’s offices.
The brutal attacks had broad implications: If society accepts that its journalists may be murdered for challenging taboos or tackling contentious topics, have we essentially agreed to abandon public debate on any potentially conflictive issues? Are we tacitly endorsing self-censorship in the name of political correctness or self-preservation?
An estimated 4 million people took to streets across France after the attacks last year, chanting “Charlie, you are France,” a country that prides itself on its universal values of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Signs declared “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), a refrain that went viral on social media.
Footage of the protests is interwoven with the interviews and images of Charlie cartoons. The directors’ friendships with the Charlie staff infuse the film and narration with emotional depth. That closeness only weighs the movie down in one latter section dedicated to the friends lost that feels perhaps too personal for a general audience.
This is a philosophical film, heavy on moral questions and short on easy answers. Viewers might not agree with every idea put forth here, and that is entirely the point.
“You can disagree without threatening or killing your detractors,” says the cartoonist “Charb,” just a few years before he was killed in the Charlie Hebdo newsroom.
Fighting for Freedom from Cairo to Kiev
In a country where for 30 years few dared speak out for fear of repercussion under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s clinched-fist rule, the celebration in “The Square” of the young revolutionaries who brought down his regime is at once romantic and honest, tragic yet hopeful.
It’s not hard to make parallels with the pro-European protestors in Kiev in Russian-born Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire.” Circumstances differ, but the fights are related and in many ways look eerily similar on film, right down to the heavily armored police.
Afineevsky’s documentary details the specifics of how events unfolded, while Noujaim tells a more intimate story, showing us what the revolution meant in the personal lives of a small group of protagonists we feel we get to know.
Neither documentary goes into much detail on the widely reported role of social media and mobile apps in coordinating and communicating the revolutions.
“The battle isn’t just the rocks and stones,” declares British-Egyptian protestor Khalid Abdalla (an actor in “The Kite Runner”). “The battle is in the images. The battle is in the stories.”
The images, often grisly, and the stories, sometimes heartbreaking, are in these movies. Both convey a palpable sense of urgency through hand-held camerawork, chaotic street scenes, a raw rollercoaster of emotions, and the chronological stitching together of months of dramas that, sadly, are still playing out in both countries today.
The Arab Spring hasn’t produced the hoped-for democratic overhaul of the region, while Ukraine is still suffering the pressures of Russian power.