Edward Bulwer-Lytton posited that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” He should know. The 19th-century poet, novelist and playwright also earned his crust as a politician. That is a tenet which Baha Boukhari upholds dearly.
The 71-year-old Palestinian cartoonist is among the artists whose works and political views are portrayed in Stéphanie Valloatto’s documentary Cartoonists – Foot Soldiers of Democracy, which was screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Now it has made it over here and will be shown at next week’s Animix – Israel International Animation, Comics & Caricature Festival, which will take place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque from August 4 to 8.
The film takes in the craft and views of 12 cartoonists from diverse societies around the world, such as French illustrator Jean Plantureux, who works under the nom de plume of Plantu; Jeff Danziger from the United States; Russian cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky; Nadia Khiari, aka Willis, from Tunis; Pi San of China; and celebrated Belgian-born Jerusalemite cartoonist and comic book artist Michel Kichka. The latter is also the recipient of this year’s Animix Prize.
Boukhari has been conveying his thoughts and ideas on current affairs in this part of the world for more than half a century. He started at the Al Rai Al Aam newspaper in Kuwait in 1964, followed by stints at Al Anba, which also works out of Kuwait City, and Jerusalem-based Al Quds, and he has been providing pictorial comment for Al Ayyam in Ramallah since 1999.
In general, Boukhari says he feels he has a great degree of freedom to express exactly what he feels and thinks about the situation at hand, although things tend to be fluid. “I can’t say I am completely free. Sometimes an idea is passed, and sometimes they refuse it. Maybe after the third idea, it is passed. It is often a matter of the mood at the time,” he says.
Boukhari points his seasoned pen in all sorts of directions. It is not only Israel’s presence in the West Bank that fuels his illustrative output. He also criticizes the Palestinian leadership and addresses issues elsewhere in the world, such as the United States and Iraq, as well as general sticking points such as censorship.
“I draw what I believe, and then it is up to the newspaper to pass it or not. That is not my responsibility,” he notes. “That has been my attitude all my life, to just draw what I believe.” Then again, there can’t be much point in producing items that bother the powers-that-be so much that they never get published. Presumably, there has to be some fine-line treading here.
“Yes, of course, I want people to see my work, but I believe I represent the majority opinion,” says Boukhari. “But you have critical political situations, and then my newspaper has to be careful about deciding whether to pass my work or not.”
It is very much a matter of keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the ebb and flow of sensibilities and of changing circumstances. “Sometimes I draw a cartoon about [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry. If he is in the region they will stop my cartoon, and when he leaves they will publish it,” says Boukhari with a laugh.
The captions that go with Boukhari’s cartoons are in Arabic, but he says written language is no barrier to conveying his messages.
“The cartoon is a language that everyone around the world can understand. It is an easy way to communicate with people. You can always present your ideas through cartoons,“ he says.
As far as Boukhari is concerned, that doesn’t mean he has carte blanche to shoot from the hip. The furor caused by the cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris earlier this year left cartoonists of all stripes with much food for thought.
“My colleagues and I draw for peace, not to create hate or anger. As human beings, we should respect all religions and what people believe. We should respect everybody’s opinion, especially religion. It is not our business to make fun of any religion,” he asserts.
In Cartoonists – Foot Soldiers of Democracy Kichka notes that he is conscious of the fact that someone, somewhere will probably be offended by what he draws, and he knows he cannot prevent that.
Meanwhile, Boukhari says he does his best to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.
“We are soldiers of peace,” he declares. “Our pen is our weapon, and we can do a lot with just a few lines. We draw what we believe, and we try to communicate between nations, not create anger or any bad feelings.”
That said, political cartoonists, by definition, are always putting some noses out of joint, otherwise their work would be a bland offering and just a blur on the way to reading something more interesting in the newspaper. Despite his peace-mongering mindset, Boukhari does get a bee in his bonnet, and he portrays that in his work.
“I don’t like it when politics gets into religion. I have full respect for religion, but I don’t like it when someone uses it in a political way. And I have to show that,” he says.
Boukhari will not be attending the festival in Tel Aviv because he feels that the process of crossing the Green Line involves undergoing what he calls “humiliation by Israeli soldiers.” Naturally, that situation occasionally finds its way into the cartoonist’s output.
Cartoonists – Foot Soldiers of Democracy will be screened on August 8 at 3 p.m.
Elsewhere in the jam-packed 15th edition of the Animix lineup, you can find French director Pascal Vuong’s stirring 3D documentary D-Day: Normandy 1944, which will be attended by Vuong. And there is Roger Aller’s The Prophet, based on the feted 1923 book by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.
On the tribute side of the program, there will be an illustrated salute to veteran comedienne and entertainer Rivka Michaeli and a tribute to the now defunct Tel Aviv institution Café Tamar, as well as a collection of the cream of Israeli animation produced over the past year.
There will also be hat doffing to acclaimed professionals from overseas. That includes a Salute to The New Yorker slot, marking the prestigious magazine’s 90th anniversary, with New Yorker illustrator Richard MacGuire in attendance. Other international guests include Roberto Genovesi from Italy, director of the Venice Cartoon on the Bay Festival; and Oscar-winning animation and special effects director Anthony La Molinara, who received the golden statuette for his work on Spider-man 2.
Naturally, junior patrons will be well catered to over the five days, with a plethora of animated movies and workshops.For tickets and more information about the Animix Festival: (03) 606-0800 and www.animixfest.co.il