When Fleming Rose, the editor of the liberal independent newspaper, Jylands-Posten, approached the 72-year-old Kurt Westergaard for a cartoon responding “to the provocation by terrorists who use religion as their spiritual ammunition,” these two unlikely Dutch men ignited a diplomatic explosion. In his irreverent documentary “Bloody Cartoons,” Karsten Kjaer’s travels from his home in Denmark to a village in Iran to discover “why” the Muslim world responded to the cartoons with such violence: rioters destroyed several Dutch embassies and more importantly, 150 demonstrators reportedly died during the protests. Although the Arab world has its own vibrant history of political cartoons, which unfortunately is not addressed in the film, these particular cartoons egged on radical Sunnis who now had further proof that “the West, headed by Denmark,” scorns Islam. With wry humor, Kjaer heads to Lebanon, Turkey and Qatar where he interviews an unflattering assortment of irrational sheiks and pompous politicians. In the film’s highlight, Kjaer heads to Iran, where despite the efforts of his appointed “fixer” from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, he manages to meet Ali Bakhsi, a 70-year-old villager who was photographed with blood on his hands to illustrate his willingness to battle evil. Turns out this honest and likeable senior farmer who sidelines as a “specialist in demonstrations” has never seen the cartoons, but does not hesitate to look at them. After all, he’s “not a fanatic.” Meanwhile back in France, the editor of Soir is fired for re-publishing the cartoons and then is acquitted in court. Iran retaliates with a Holocaust cartoon contest and when Rose decides to publish those cartoons in Denmark, he is asked to take a leave of absence. For Westerners, freedom of speech has occupational as well as political hazards.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid