Rayma Suprami in 'Cartoonists'
Rayma Suprami in 'Cartoonists'

French director Stephanie Valloatto calls them foot soldiers but I see them more as canaries (though they tend to squawk rather than sing or chirp). They are political cartoonists, and although their value in the age of Stewart and Colbert has perhaps lessened, in much of the world not blessed with a pop culture machine, they are still important measures of press freedom. So it was a very good idea to make a film about 12 of them, "Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy."

Valloatto's method is pretty basic: She visits each of the cartoonists – in France, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Israel and Palestine, the U.S., Venezuela, Tunisia, Russia, China, Burkina Faso and Mexico -- and interviews them, then edits it together. Cinematically, the results are a bit like a trip around the world -- you can’t really complain about the tour, which is after all highly interesting and informative, but you could wish to stay in one place a bit longer, to hear and see a bit more about a particular place and culture. 

Valloatto and team also show a bit of homeland prejudice in putting a clear emphasis on the French cartoonist Plantu. Granted, he is co-conceiver of the project and he’s one of the better personalities, but still. That said, he's also one of the better storylines, along with his counterparts in Jerusalem and the Gaza strip, all of them friends. A highlight of the film is the three of them meeting in Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Saha Boukhari shows Plantu and Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka his childhood home – that of his grandfather, which, like Israel itself, he may now only visit like a tourist, through a turnstile.

Other highlights include the sequences on two young women cartoonists -- Tunisia’s Nadia Khiari and Rayma Suprami in Venezuela. Khiari, whose Willis From Tunis cat character became a viral sensation, talks of contemporary threats to Tunisia’s traditionally open society and how she is today in the unusual position in the Middle East of having to fight not for new rights but to keep the remarkable rights women already have. Suprami, highly critical of the Chavez regime, has been the recipient of much verbal and printed abuse, yet she remains undaunted. When illustration of the president’s face was banned, she responded by drawing a banana topped by a crown, to great effect. Both women show remarkable bravery and resolve. 

Another cartoonist under threat, in the past and at present, is the Russian Mikhail Zlatkovsky, who had to drive a taxi to meet ends in earlier times and is now banned from publishing in Russia. Shown dancing at the home he built, complete with large drawing studio, his fine spirit presses on. The Mexico-based Cuban Angel Boligan was told when he arrived in Mexico years ago to avoid the holy trinity of the President, the Army and the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Needless to say, he notes contentedly, the trinity provides themes for the majority of his work.

The most disappointing sequence is that on the American Jeff Danziger, perhaps because of the job's lessening value in the U.S., or maybe because he's simply not all that personable on film (though it does not seem that Valloatto put in much effort). It's a shame because of the strong US history of political cartooning and its many excellent contemporary practitioners. She might also have included a Tom Tomorrow or Mr. Fish to show where younger cartoonists are taking the field. It’s a different game in the U.S., of course, with almost total freedom, yet in such a powerful country, pushing the political envelope can be as, if not more, important. Danziger shows a cartoon he never published, not surprisingly. Entitled "Cheney, Dick," it shows the former vice president dropping into the toilet a used condom with a likeness of President Bush on it.

Foot soldiers, canaries and envelope pushers. I like the film's French title, "Caricaturiste: Fantassins de la Democratie," which suggests two other aspects of these men and women -- fantasists and assassins. They are those as well.