by James McNally on November 5, 2010

in Theatrical Release


Carlos (Director: Olivier Assayas): The prospect of sitting down to watch a 330-minute film is always a little bit daunting, but luckily I found myself at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s largest auditorium, surrounded by only 6 other brave souls. In this luxe environment, and fortified by two intermissions, I let Assayas’ television miniseries envelop me like the cinematic epic it’s being sold as on this side of the pond.

I grew up in the 1970s, and so the story of Carlos “the Jackal” was already familiar to me. Lest the younger generation think that terrorism was invented on 9/11, let me remind them that the 1970s was a crazy time indeed. Europe was wracked by political terrorism from radical groups like the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, and the Irish Republican Army in Ireland and the UK. The Palestinian issue was also particularly hot, with groups like the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) carrying out attacks in Europe as well as in the Middle East. Even Japan had its own homegrown radicals, the Japanese Red Army. In these Cold War times, the Soviet Union was happy to clandestinely fund the mayhem, just as the Western governments funded dissidents in the Eastern Bloc nations. I’m not even going to mention the proxy wars carried out in Africa and Latin America.

With so many little fires burning, it seemed only a matter of time before someone arrived to try to connect them together. Carlos (real name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) was the son of Venezuelan Marxists and had been educated in Moscow before launching himself as a terrorist. Pledging his fealty first to Wadie Haddad and the PFLP, Carlos begins the film with his older girlfriend and her son in a settled life in London, where his cover is giving Spanish lessons. During dinner at an upscale restaurant, he argues with her that they need to stop talking about revolution and get involved. Even in this early conversation, he’s talking about glory and his girlfriend rightfully sees that his monstrous ego is at odds with his revolutionary principles. The setting is also telling, for Carlos has a love for the good life that he never bothers to reconcile with his avowed hatred for the capitalist system.

I don’t want to spend the entire review providing plot summary, but I must mention that there is a lot of it to summarize. There is so much ground to cover that for the first two hours, I was disappointed slightly by the lack of characterization. But by hour three, we’re coming to realize that Carlos is an insufferable idiot, puffed up with vanity and blind to his own ignorance of geopolitical forces. His appetites for booze and sex lead him to treat the women around him with contempt, even as they serve as safe havens when he’s on the run. As the film progresses, Carlos starts to enjoy his growing celebrity in the Western press. He gives speeches to hostages about who he is during terrorist operations, even signing an autograph in one case. The funny thing about his spectacular rise is that he’s actually not a very effective soldier. He botches most of his operations and when he ends up releasing hostages taken during his biggest operation (the storming of the OPEC conference in Vienna in December 1975), Haddad cuts him loose from the PFLP.

Vowing to start up his own group, he recruits a few loyalists with whom he’s worked in the past. Chief among them is Johannes Weinrich from the German Revolutionary Brigades, and his former girlfriend Magdalena Kopp, who eventually becomes Carlos’ wife. They set up house first in East Berlin and then in Budapest, where they try to enlist government support for their group. Carlos talks a lot about plans for operations, but never seems to get much done. A KGB-backed plan to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat gestates for years before the Muslim Brotherhood beats Carlos to the punch in 1981. All the while, Carlos is living like a mafia don, surrounding himself with luxury and supplementing his relationship with the beautiful Magdalena with visits to prostitutes and affairs with other women. After another botched operation in 1982 involving a car bombing in Paris, Magdalena is arrested and imprisoned, and Carlos flees to Syria where he lies low for several years.

In 1990, Syria, newly-allied with the US, asks Carlos to leave the country. Failing to find a welcome in Libya, he ends up in Sudan. By this time, Magdalena has given birth to their daughter, but has decided to leave Carlos and return to live with his mother in Venezuela. Carlos takes up with another woman and lives his usual extravagant lifestyle, courtesy of the Sudanese government. All the while, his former allies in the Syrian government are seeking to sell information on his whereabouts to the highest bidder. Eventually, the French government decides to bring him back to France and put him on trial, and the end of the film shows his very undignified capture.

Some reviewers have remarked that the final third “sags” a bit, but in the arc of Carlos’ life, that is only natural. His spectacular rise in the 1970s was followed by a long, slow decline, partially due to his own weaknesses but mostly due to the shifting political forces that in the end made him irrelevant. His inflated sense of self-importance grows to look ever more pathetic as his base of operations keeps shifting to smaller and more insignificant locations. It also makes his bourgeois lifestyle stand out in even sharper relief when he mentions his solidarity with the oppressed. In the end, the first celebrity terrorist was nothing more than a construct of his own fantasies and those of the media he loved to court.

In his portrayal of Carlos, I must salute Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who was able to project an out-of-control ego in Spanish, English, French, German and Arabic. He also had to gain weight, lose it, and gain it again as Carlos’ lifestyle and age take their toll. Although he is not playing a very sympathetic character (this is not Che, after all), Ramirez holds nothing back, giving every one of Carlos’ ridiculous utterances his full conviction.

Although this was originally conceived as a three-part television miniseries, there are several advantages to seeing it all at once. Chiefly, I really did come to see how much of a fraud this man was and my annoyance level after five hours was impressively high. As well, seeing one terrorist attack after another, whether botched or “successful,” drove home the complete and utter senselessness of trying to effect political change using these methods. These pathetic little people, whether idealists or sociopaths, are so far removed from the corridors of power that they’re used and discarded with little regard by the political players of the world, and to whose ranks they’ll never be admitted.

In that sense, Assayas’ film, so broad in scope and full of details, may end up sticking with me much longer than I initially thought.

P.S. In case you are thinking that the film will be a 5.5 hour slog through senseless violence and raging ego, I will point out a few delights. First, Nora von Waldstätten, who plays Magdalena Kopp, is a porcelain-skinned beauty with a pronounced allergy to brassieres. She was always a pleasure to look at, and I hope to see her in more films. Second, Assayas populates the soundtrack with some inspired, though unusual, songs from the punk and postpunk eras. If you’re a fan of The Feelies, Wire or A Certain Ratio, the soundtrack will keep you smiling.



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The Oath

The Oath (Director: Laura Poitras): Poitras’ follow-up to the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, The Oath is one of the most penetrating portraits of Islamic fundamentalism I’ve ever seen. It’s a story of two young men, one idealistic and the other naive, who are swept up into jihadism only to find themselves part of some of the most world-shaking events in recent history.

We first meet Abu Jindal behind the wheel of his taxi, haggling with and ferrying passengers through the chaotic streets of the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a. He’s in his mid-30s with a wife and young son, trying hard to make ends meet. We soon learn that he once had much grander ambitions. From 1996 to 2000, Abu served as Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan. His brother-in-law Salim Hamdan was Bin Laden’s driver. Then we learn that while trying to get his family out of Afghanistan after the US invasion in late 2001, Salim was picked up by Pakistani troops looking for Arab prisoners to sell to the Americans. He has been imprisoned at Guantanamo ever since.

From here, the film shifts back and forth, from Abu’s new life in Yemen to the upcoming military trial of Salim. Abu, though free, struggles with guilt. Why is Salim in prison and not him? We come to learn that only Abu took an oath of loyalty to Bin Laden. He had been the idealistic young man who recruited Salim and many others to jihad. Lacking job opportunities and father figures, they gravitated naturally to the certainty and security that surrounded Bin Laden’s group. Abu eagerly swears his loyalty, while Salim, not quite as certain, is content to take the lowly job of driver. Abu is soon in Bin Laden’s inner circle, not only serving as his bodyguard, but also as his “emir of hospitality,” welcoming new recruits to the camp and determining their suitability as soldiers. He swears that Salim never knew anything about operations or weapons, and his guilt is only compounded by his family relationship. Bin Laden had ordered the two young friends to return to Yemen and marry two sisters, and now Salim’s wife and children (the youngest of whom he’s never met) are constant reminders to Abu of his responsibility.

Abu Jindal is an enormously charismatic man, with an easy smile and a touching devotion to his young son Habib. When he claims to feel pain over Salim’s continued imprisonment, we believe him. The mystery that hangs over the film, why is Abu free and Salim imprisoned, is eventually revealed and I don’t want to spoil it here. What is so interesting about the character of Abu is that he is obviously still a jihadist, but that he has changed his mind on many things. He claims to have always been against the killing of civilians, preferring to meet his enemies “soldier to soldier” on the battlefield, but after serving time in prison in Yemen, he has renounced violence as well. He is an ideological soldier now, arming young Muslim men to become the doctors, lawyers, preachers and engineers that he claims are also needed in Islam’s struggle against the values of the West.

The sections of the film set in Guantanamo are equally important, though less compelling since we never see Salim. His lawyers and the US military prosecutors lay out their cases, and these deliberations form some of the most important legal proceedings in recent history, but all we know of Salim is through his letters home. His absence haunts the film, as we come to believe that he truly is someone simply caught up in something much bigger than himself.

Both men’s reflections on their past actions and beliefs are candid and moving, even as we sense that Abu will never stop believing that Islam is locked in an eternal struggle with every other belief system in the world. It’s sad that we can feel so close to someone and yet so divided at the same time.

Cinematically, the film is stunning, mostly due to the footage from Yemen, a land where the buildings are beautiful and the women are covered. Poitras quite often focuses her camera on the children. Seeing Salim’s beautiful young daughters growing up without him makes us keenly aware that separating a man from his family is a terrible thing. At the same time, watching young Habib trying to learn his prayers from Abu, we worry that blind obedience to a father can be an equally terrible thing. And yes, my Western prejudices also made me sad that these laughing and chatty little girls will soon be covered from head to toe and silenced. It’s hard to reconcile that that is what Abu and Salim were fighting for in Afghanistan, what they want to spread around the world. And that is also what makes The Oath so compelling. I can’t wait to see it again.

Official site of the film

Here is the Q&A with director Laura Poitras from after the screening, conducted by Hot Docs Director of Programming Sean Farnel:

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Duration: 18:01



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C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons (It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks)

C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons (It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks) (Director: Daniel Leconte): The closing night film of Cinefranco this year is perhaps uniquely suited to a francophone audience. Despite the presence of subtitles, Leconte’s documentary assumes a fairly broad knowledge of current French politics and media, and will likely be slightly impenetrable to the rest of us. That is not to say that it doesn’t explore important issues, but it does so in such a narrow context that it will be difficult for anyone not already familiar with the subject in question to hang in for almost two hours.

The subject in question is the court case brought in February 2006 by several French Muslim groups against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Long known for its irreverent political cartoons, the magazine was accused of crossing the line when it republished the infamous cartoons of Mohammed that appeared first in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. In addition, it added several of its own cartoons, including a cover image of a crying Mohammed with the caption “Mahomet débordé par les intégristes” (“Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”). The speech balloon provides the title for the film: C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons (“It’s hard being loved by jerks”). The film is an in-depth account of the three-day trial, with footage from outside the courtroom as well as interviews with the lawyers and witnesses, who often recount their testimony in considerable detail. What’s not particularly clear is when these interviews were filmed. Some seem to be very soon after or even during the trial, while others are more hazy.

Significant to the events was the ongoing presidential campaign, which led most of the candidates to weigh in supporting the freedom of the press (although some were more committed and vocal than others). Eventual winner Nicolas Sarkozy sends a letter of support which is introduced dramatically on the trial’s first day, while Socialist leader François Hollande appears in person to testify for the magazine.

There’s never much doubt that Philippe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, will be acquitted, and the parade of witnesses will be a succession of unknown figures for many, but notable among the defenders of the cartoons was Claude Lanzmann, director of the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah. When asked if there was any parallel between the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists and the racist caricatures of Jews promoted by the Nazis, Lanzmann dismisses the question by saying that the purpose of the cartoons was very different. I was frustrated by this answer and wanted there to be more exploration of this issue, but it was not forthcoming. This is especially interesting to me since in Canada, we have laws designed to prevent incidents of anti-semitism and hate speech targetting other groups. I wonder how far freedom of the press would extend here if offensive political cartoons were published.

The filmmaker’s perspective is quite clear from the beginning, and although the lawyers representing the Muslim side are articulate and intelligent, they are never quite able to make their case, either in the courtroom or in the film. To me, this is a bit of a missed opportunity, because by focussing so tightly on the court case rather than on the public debate it set off, the film denies us a chance to hear from some others on the issue. Another thing only hinted at is that many of the people professing support for “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech” were notorious xenophobes and far right figures such as Jean Marie Le Pen. These supporters are hardly mentioned, making Val and his editorial staff seem like saintly figures galvanizing only the highest principles of the French citizenry, the protection of democracy and freedom.

I had just one more slight issue with the film, and although it might seem minor, it really grated on me by the end. The “score” as it were consisted of one piece of music about 30 seconds long that was used over and over and over. It sounded like music from a thriller that would accompany a bank heist or a police chase, and it was used to ratchet up the suspense during the trial, but it became annoying very quickly.

In conclusion, although I had some issues with the film itself from the perspective of a non-francophone, non-European, I think for a French audience this would be very fresh in their minds. Their familiarity with both the characters and the issues raised would make this far more relevant to that audience than to one here in North America. Nonetheless, it did show in broad strokes the issues facing the French people today around the clash between certain religious values and the freedoms of a democratic system.

The trailer below is only available in French, with no English subtitles:


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