With the mid-November terrorist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis still painfully fresh in our minds, it is worth reflecting on the terrorist attacks that opened 2015 in France – most notably the one at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of what became a multi-event three-day siege.
Smithsonian Channel’s “Paris Terror Attack: Charlie Hebdo”, airing tonight (Monday, January 4 at 8 p.m., ET) declines to reflect. It is a superficial look at these events that refuses to bring perspective, analysis, or even very good storytelling to one of the most important terrorist episodes in recent times. Smithsonian’s subcontractor, Films of Records, Ltd., and the program’s producer/director, Ursula Macfarlane, deserve special mention for doing such a poor job with such an important subject.
The basic facts were these: on January 7, 2015, the brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, sponsored by Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, massacred eleven Charlie Hebdo editors and cartoonists, a bodyguard and a janitor, wounded 11 others, then out on the street gunned down a (Muslim) French policeman, waved their assault weapons, and repeatedly shouted “We avenge the Prophet Mohammed” before speeding away.
The documentary intercuts survivor interviews with stock news footage to tell that story and what followed in the next three days: the brothers’ trail going cold then hot again, the mass mobilization of French gendarmerie by land and air, the cornering of the suspects in an industrial building north of Paris, the final shootout. The film also weaves in a narrative about a second, coordinated assault, when a Kouachi accomplice named Coulibaly took 20 hostages in a kosher deli in Paris.
There are moving moments, from the pathos of victims reliving the horror to the texts that a Frenchman named Lilian sent as he hid under a sink in the room next to where the Kouachi brothers made their last stand.
“Paris Terror Attack: Charlie Hebdo” skates by the collision between Western secular notions of free speech versus the sacrilege, for Muslims, of any visual depiction of Mohammed, much less one satirical or mocking. It fails to mention the 2011 jihadist attack on the magazine. It leaves out details of other terrorist attacks throughout France during the same three-day period. It offers virtually no expert analysis. It teaches us next to nothing about the magazine’s unique editorial stance, or about the terrorists’ backgrounds.
In a revealing example of lazy editing, we hear a newscaster intone that the Hebdo attack “seems to be well thought out in advance.” But we’ve already learned that the Kouachi brothers initially burst into the wrong office, and that when they hijacked a second car, one of them accidentally left behind, of all things, his photo ID. Yet immediately following the “well thought out” clip, a police official tells us that the brothers were feeling pressured and hungry while on the lam because they only packed water and a couple of nutrition bars. So much for well-thought-out.
The brothers’ last stand was pathetic. They were in contact with Coulibaly, who was trying to negotiate a shrewd deal, but then bolted to their deaths without exacting a single casualty. These are all revealing details, but we get no help making sense of them from the scriptwriters.
Several of the most important survivors (where’s Lilian?!) weren’t filmed. If it was their choice, it was a good one. But maybe their presence would have helped. It’s not that a look-back on the Charlie Hebdo attacks needs to be a brilliant exegesis on Islamic terrorism in contemporary France. But we are all hungry to understand, and the events of a year ago deserve more than a gloss. Smithsonian can do and has done much better. Next time it should hire a different production company.