Will Crime Pay for Mainstream Docs About Crooks?
Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, Havana Marking, UK, 2012, 90 minutes
In the Dark Room, Nadav Schirman, Israel/Germany/Finland, 2012, 90 minutes
When does crime pay? When criminals steal (or justify stealing) from those who don’t need or deserve their property, and then give that property away or use it to achieve a greater good.
There’s the Robin Hood myth, and then there’s the myth of the revolutionary, branded as a terrorist, who extorts money from the rich and puts it in the service of political goals.
The true crime stories at IDFA that fit these formulas end with reality checks, but the journeys there show evidence of genuine drama in documentaries, plus wild plot twists that might not make it past Hollywood committees if the films were features.
Here are two.
Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers tracks down a gang of jewelry robbers who are brazen, and no less refined for their bravura. They drive cars through the walls of jewelry stores, and they empty the shops in a minute or two. These Montenegrins and Albanians discuss their adventures, complete with Balkan-accented charm, with director Havana Marking, who’s tracked them down. They are the kinds of crooks that people who watch movies tend to love. Most people who watch movies don’t own jewelry stores.
Named for the buffo crooks that Peter Sellers made famous, a lot of those thieves (who are anything but idiots) have not been caught, so Marking animates her characters to conceal any trace of their identities as they talk of the war that tore Yugoslavia apart. We learn that the war catalyzed criminality and energized a black market that could move anything. No surprise. We can observe the same effect in Northern Ireland (and Ireland), Lebanon, and Chechnya — now in Syria.
Smash & Grab sets its context solidly, but it’s also a cinematic whirl, spinning through animation and lots of surveillance tape of the crimes from Paris to Dubai. The 2007 Dubai heist of watches and jewels from supercilious and security-obesses Graff may have finally rallied law enforcement to catch at least some of the Pink Panthers. Enough are left to tell a great story, if you’re not in the jewelry business. But just wait. Smash and grab thieves also robbed an Apple store. Most of the copycats lack the Panthers’ refinement. Two lessons from this polished doc: don’t try one of these crimes yourself and, if you see a car that seems to be accelerating in the direction of a jewelry store, get out of the way.
In the Dark Room retells and reconfigures one of the many stories that Olivier Assayas told in his epic Carlos. Here that story comes from Magdalena Kopp (b 1948), the wife of the Venezuelan gunman, Illich Ramirez Sanchez (b 1949), now serving a life sentence in a French prison. This is anything but a rousing memoir. (She published The Terror Years in 2007.)But it feeds an unsatisfied appetite for the backstory to the lives of radicals on the extreme of the student Left from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Look for it on European television. There won’t be much of an audience for In the Dark Room in the US. See this new chapter in the unending anthology of self-deception, if you can find it.
Kopp was a young woman who got caught up in politics without any deep roots there. A trained photographer who became an accomplished forger, she fell in with one student activist, then with another in the Frankfurt Revolutionary Cells, at a time when demonstrations against the Vietnam War degenerated from a mass phenomenon into a bombing/kidnapping strategy funded by Arab countries and tolerated by the Soviet bloc. Magdalena met Carlos through radical friends. The leader, with $50 million from a ransom paid by OPEC to free oil ministers taken hostage in 1975, was a bully who became her companion, and the eventual father of daughter. The account of the baby’s birth – in a taxi in a Damascus traffic jam – gives you a sense of the romance that was never there. Carlos, predictably, was also a phallocrat who shipped his wife to his family in Venezuela, where she and the young daughter he fathered, Rosa, spent their days on the beach. Magdalena eventually chose the rain and dreary family life of Germany.
We are reminded that the comrades of Carlos and Kopp are the thugs who, after they high-jacked a plane, put the Jews to one side and the other to another. So much for correcting the errors of the past.
The doc takes a grim turn when Rosa, Carlos’s daughter, prepares for a visit in prison to the father, contemplating a life sentence, who barely paid attention to her, and then sees the broken man. For daughter and mother, their relation to Carlos also turns out to be a life sentence. Dark indeed.