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Letter From Paris: Laughing for Change

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I had taken the bus to the Atlas stop on Line 26 and walked the cross street to Boulevard de la Vilette, where I found the Amnesty International Building. New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly, whom I had come to meet, seemed to materialize in front of me at just the right moment. We kissed hello as one does in France, and I walked in.

As the press conference started, the six women were settling into their chairs, some with their translators behind him. I looked at this line-up of women. It was a diverse group in some ways, though they could easily have been your neighbors or friends, whose funny bones and ability to draw happened to be the avenues of their intelligence and wit. The drawing of cartoons is how this group of artists are most themselves, and, by the way, many of the women had been inspired and determined to make this their life's work since they were kids. The common thread was that their humor would somehow be used as a catalyst for change.

These cartoonists had come to Paris from North America, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East to attend this conference of Rencontres Internationales du Dessin de Press (RIDEP)--basically an international meeting of press cartoonists.

Imagine that: laughing for change. It could be a movement, no? And it is, more or less, with RIDEP and another organization called Cartooning for Peace (of which Ms. Donnelly is a member) that was started by noted French cartoonist Plantu. There are other cartooning groups in France as well. Ms. Donnelly was in Paris this past fall to attend another meeting of such professionals.

In some of our discussion before the press conference, Ms. Donnelly reported the lack of cultural interest in cartooning as an art form in the United States. "I feel like a jazz musician coming over to France to get appreciated," she'd written me in an email. I had met the cartoonist last fall when she breezed through Paris.

The way the RIDEP got started was that its home village of Carquefou was looking for an international event. "We were looking for three things," said Xavier Guillauma, a regional representative for Amnesty International who co-sponsors the event. "We wanted it to be creative, attractive, and to send a message."

Created in 2000 by the City of Carquefou, the RIDEP meeting is for thousands of visitors and an event not to be missed--thanks to the universal language of cartooning. On its 11th edition, press cartoonists from all around the world will be attending the RIDEP for 6 days, thus providing the public with the occasion to reflect upon freedom of expression and Human Rights and other universal themes such as women or the environment (the themes for this year).

2010 RIDEP: Cartoonists as World Witnesses

Humour, caricature, criticism... All states of mind will be displayed on the 11th RIDEP ! French and foreign cartoonists will be bringing their views live from all corners of the world. Representatives from the 5 continents will be present, with about 20 nationalities working together in Carquefou (Germany, Saudi Arabia, Australia, USA, France, Gabon, Greece, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Portugal, Quebec, Romania, Sweden and Switzerland).

About 30 cartoonists will be onsite sketching the world...

Liza Donnelly's cartoons have appeared regularly in The New Yorker since 1982, at which time she was the youngest and one of only three women cartoonists there. Among her other cartooning projects, she wrote a history of the women cartoonists of The New Yorker, titled Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons (Prometheus Books), and Sex and Sensibility: Ten Women Examine the Lunacy of Modern Love in 200 Cartoons (Twelve Books), about love and sex today as viewed by 10 prominent women cartoonists. She and her husband, Michael Maslin, wrote Cartoon Marriage:Adventures in Love and Matrimony with the New Yorker's Cartooning Couple (Random House). They were profiled on CBS Sunday Morning, which is one of my favorite American television shows. I'll call it a breath of fresh air.

This honoring of women cartoonists by RIDEP was particularly appropriate for Ms. Donnelly, since she also teaches classes on Women's Issues at Vassar.

Here are the cartoonists RIDEP brought forth, which, by the way, is the second time they've put their focus on women:

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Liza Donnelly - United States

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Marlene Pohle - Germany

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Firoozeh Mozaffari - Iran

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Caro, Caroline Rutz de Nidau - Switzerland

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Cathy Wilcox - Australia

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Hana Hajjar - Hanaa Bakri Hajjar - Saudi Arabia

In the discussion after the cartoonists were introduced and made their statements, a few topics stood out to Elena Rossini, @illusionists on twitter, who is developing a documentary about women, self-image, and the marketing of unattainable beauty. Ms. Rossini was struck by the cartoonists who reported being approached by men saying they could see the women drawing the images...but couldn't believe they were writing the text!

Everyone in the audience--men and women alike--were surprised by the courage and ability of the Iranian cartoonist, Firoozeh Mozaffari, to publish such provocative cartoons in her country. Saudi Arabian cartoonist Hanna Hajjar is the only one of either sex in hers.

Laughing for change may not sound like a sophisticated concept, but what many don't understand is this: You'll never get people's attention by boring them to death.

What is your take on cartoons for fun, provocation, or another voice and way into our culture and consciousness?

In the meantime, congratulations to Ms. Donnelly and all the other cartoonists!

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com.