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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (ver­sion 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest ver­sion here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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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