Review by Justin Goodman
It wasn’t long before the terrorist attacks in November that Paris viewed a massacre. In January it was witness to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when the Kouachi brothers gunned down 12 of the satirical magazines cartoonists over its depictions of Mohammed. Neither of these are forgettable events—especially given they took place not more than a year ago—and, if nothing else, can be remembered for the cries of solidarity, “je suis Charlie.” While a degree of pride in your country is commendable, the 21st century has seen a disturbing increase in nationalistic fervor. Contemporary tragedy has become onanistic and exhibitionist (the National WWII Museum was founded 60 years after its titular event; the 9/11 Museum 5 years after). With this in mind, it should be unsurprising and disturbing to hear that the Smithsonian Channel will be airing Paris Terror Attack: Charlie Hebdo just a year following the event.
The entirety of the event is followed hour by hour in a mix of footage from that day, clips from news following it, and interviews with those affiliated with the shooting. All of this overlaid with a narrator whose distant retelling, meant to create an atmosphere of dramatic unfolding, belongs on a show like Cold Case Files whose source material isn’t the murder of innocent people by radicalized natives, but the oddity of the unknown. The causes are not unknown to us though, nor are they particularly spectacular. The tone of the entire documentary (if it can be called that) is of obsession with spectacle.
That’s why watching the Kouachi’s accomplice, Amedy Coulibaly, be gunned down trying to flee the kosher market he held hostage is upsetting. Not because it’s a sympathetic portrayal of a French child of African(Malian) Muslim heritage growing up in a country with infamously strict, secular-based minority assimilation—including the hijab ban—or a man diagnosed through Parisian courts as having an “immature and psychopathic personality” losing his life when therapy and medication could have helped. He’s simply an Islamist associate of the Kouachi’s. It’s upsetting because his death comes as an applaud sign held up to the audience.
But it’s difficult to make men who have preached death, and acted on it, sympathetic. The problem comes with the half-assed attempts from a channel that represents an educational institute as lauded as the Smithsonian. As events progress, candid camera of the gun-toting terrorists and tracking shots of Charlie Hebdo’s Patrick Pelloux re-enacting discovering his friend’s bodies and newsreel of police efforts, there’s occasional audio from discussions of the Kouachi’s “radicalization” and the questionable nature of Charlie Hebdo’s satirizing a belief system (ergo a people) who had no power. Was the depiction of Mohammed an act of radical free speech, or was it simply Islamophobia-cum-laziness attempting to bank on the dislike of an already oppressed minority? Unfortunately, this thoughtfulness is tangential.
Instead, the documentary lets the victims open up and explore their feelings about their losses. Which would be good, except this need to communicate loss is used for exploitative ends: The final shot is of Maryse, wife of the assassinated Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Georges Wolinski, walking to her bedroom as the camera pans to one of the dozen sticky notes Georges lovingly left for her each morning. It reads, “Bonne nuit, ma Cherie.” Goodnight, my love. The camera lingers there, wobbling ever-so-slightly. We’ve been allowed into someone’s grief to turn it into an object to be gawked at. This kind of documentary is not about what happened, but how it makes us feel. This damages none but the suffering.
If you have the stomach to watch men die, or to see the blood covered (or possibly and more offensively red painted) floors of the Charlie Hebdo offices, then Paris Terror Attack: Charlie Hebdo might be worth your attention, as the Smithsonian Channel seems intent on making evocative and marketable the deaths of over two dozen people. However, if you want an assessment that covers the historical, social, political, cultural, and economic aspects of the attacks, I’d suggest googling what was written in January after the event. And if you want a collation of what we know now into a documentary, wait a decade for an authentically complex one. Or give it a few months until the inevitable Paris Terror Attacks: Bataclan Theater comes out. We Americans love to turn tragedy into viewership.
Airs Monday night on Smithsonian Channel.