I recently watched the documentary film, Je Suis Charlie, available on Netflix. The movie was released in September 2015, 9 months after the terrorist attack that killed several staff members of the sharp-edged periodical, Charlie Hebdo. The two gunmen that carried out the attack were members of Al Qaeda in Yemen. They were angered by Charlie Hebdo’s repeated depictions of Mohammed and other sarcastic cartoons that mocked rigid interpretations of Islam. The primary target of that day’s carnage was Charb, the journal’s Editor in Chief. The madmen achieved their objective, taking Charb’s life and that of 11 others. Among the survivors that day, was female contributor, Coco.
The film pays tribute to the victims of the attack and documents the initial shock and reactions that reverberated across France. Proud of their nation’s history of political activism and defense of free speech, many French people felt personally assailed. Even those that weren’t fond of the caustic and irreverent critique served up each week by Charlie Hebdo, took to the streets in protest. The day following the attack, French president, François Hollande, a frequent Charlie Hebdo target, tearfully addressed the world. Here was a man that Charlie had once depicted with his penis being used as a bookmark in his ex-partner’s memoir. Yet after the attacks, Hollande repeatedly expressed his solidarity with the victims’ families and defended the importance of an uncensored press.
Throughout the documentary, several members of the Charlie Hebdo staff, who were in the office on the day of the attack, speak poignantly about the lives and values of their murdered colleagues. As they deliver eyewitness accounts of the horror they fortuitously survived and recall touching memories of fallen friends and mentors, one can’t help but wonder how they are able to maintain their composure. I found particularly striking the account of Corinne Rey, a French cartoonist that uses the pen name, Coco.
The day of the attack, Coco had left the office, on her way to pick up her daughter from school, when two masked gunmen approached her, addressed her by name, and escorted her back into the building. They threatened to kill her if she did not enter the passcode that would allow them to access Charlie’s offices. As Coco recounts the thoughts that went through her head as she unlocked the door and the aftermath that followed, the details she sets forth are not what transfix my attention. Rather it is Coco’s clear and mindful presentation, her determination to honor her colleagues, and her devotion to liberty, that draw me in.
During the interview, I find Coco’s face mesmerizingly beautiful and courageous. I’m blown away by her conviction and strength, knowing that she must have given the interview well within a year of the attack. Deep in thought, Coco provides a minute by minute account of what took place that day. She smiles fondly as she recalls going about the morning’s activities, blissfully unaware of what was ahead. Her expression turns to one of confusion as she describes her escorted ascent to Charlie’s offices, located on the third floor—at first not understanding what was happening, then fearing she’d never again see her child. Remembering the sound of gunfire and the ultimate fate of those that were slain, she appears sickened, then bewildered, and ultimately resigned to the immutable events that took place.
But, perhaps I should not be altogether surprised by Coco’s fortitude. It takes guts to work for the self-proclaimed, “irresponsible journal” of Charlie Hebdo. The issue following the attack portrayed Mohammed holding up the by-then-famous slogan of solidarity, “Je suis Charlie”. Less than a year after the attack, Coco’s signature appeared on another cover, the title of which I’ll loosely translate as “They have guns, fuck ’em, we have champagne.”