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“Her Name Is Sabine,” “Terror’s Advocate”

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03112008_dvds1.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

It is surely a first — an international movie star (Sandrine Bonnaire) making a patient, respectful, thoroughly unnarcissistic documentary about her own handicapped sister, and stumping for policy change as she considers painful mysteries about family and the passage of time in the process. “Her Name Is Sabine” (2007) is a simple, unpretentious piece of work — Bonnaire spends an enormous amount of time simply observing the managed-care home where Sabine, nearing 40, lives now with a handful of other adults with varying modes and manifestations of autism. Slowly, Sabine’s history is dripped in — as a child, teen and young adult, she was different, “off,” but lucid, literate, energetic and capable of playing Chopin. She went without diagnosis for decades. As her siblings — ten of them — grew up one by one and left home, Sabine, robbed of stimulus, began to deteriorate; a series of hospital stays and hired nurses followed, and then a five-year long institutional stay in which Sabine grew violent and was tamped down by straitjackets and antipsychotic drugs. The filmmaker glosses over it, but Sabine, perhaps now permanently debilitated, was eventually rescued to a new facility that her famous sister had to raise money for herself, using her fame as an actress and celebrity.

In her deliberately modest way, Bonnaire has a tiger by the tail here, in ways that have nothing to do with the film’s obvious and sincere plea for better diagnostics and care for autistics. The film’s searing pathos emerge from Bonnaire’s use of home videos shot by the family and by Bonnaire herself over the last 25 years or so, which are cut directly into segments of Sabine’s present-day existence, and the tragic contrast between them is bludgeoning, and not necessarily the complete result of her bad years of institutional care. When young, Sabine resembled her sister, and was clearly a tempestuous, fascinating, zesty whip of a girl, not at all unlike the reckless, trouble-seeking gamine Bonnaire made her global mark as in Maurice Pialat’s “À Nos Amours” (1983). (They even had the same enormous head of ropey hair.) It could be a revelation for serious students of Pialat’s depth-sounding movie: Did the 16-year-old Bonnaire use her sister as a model, and was the film’s Suzanne intended to be slightly “off,” autistically disconnected in some hidden way from her family, helpless in her impulsiveness? It almost seems certain that Bonnaire was channeling her sister in Agnes Varda’s ferociously antisocial “Vagabond” (1985) — the existential tension of which could easily be read as an autistic crisis, or vice versa.

In any case, “Her Name Is Sabine” embodies an essential, brutal sadness — whatever the confluence of reasons that caused Sabine to devolve from a hungry, bright-eyed girl to the obese, slack-jawed patient we see today, it’s a distillation of the costs of time on all of us. This comes to the surface when Bonnaire, perhaps somewhat brutally, shows Sabine the home videos from 10 or 20 years before, and we watch the torturous grief rise and fall on her sister’s face like ocean waves… until it’s over, and she asks to see it again, laughing.

03112008_dvds2.jpgIn contrast, Barbet Schroeder’s bio-doc “Terror’s Advocate” (2007) is as complicated and duplicitous as full-on espionage. Our subject is Jacques Vergès, a French lawyer of French-Vietnamese ancestry who has been a pivotal figure in many of the last half-century’s most contentious terrorism-based trials and controversies — pivotal in that he uniformly defends, on principle, the terrorist at hand, including PLO bombers, members of the Bader-Meinhof gang, Carlos the Jackal, Pol Pot, etc. Vergès doesn’t disappoint in cutting a provocative figure — confidently waving a cigar around, he answers only the questions that suit him, and is quite obviously in love with the vision of himself as a kind of international man of mystery. Schroeder, whose specialty has been enigmatic subjects skirting the edges of civilization (talking gorillas, primitives, dominatrices, barflies, Idi Amin), obviously loves Vergès for the unpopular, or even inexplicable, position he proudly takes in world politics, preferring to focus on his love affairs, debts and a period in the ’70s when he disappeared altogether, rather than on the political reasoning behind his decisions.

But the reasoning is there, and it makes “Terror’s Advocate” burn with fury, even if far too few American film critics had the temerity or the education to address Vergès head-on. Simply, Vergès began his adult crusade with the Algerian fight for independence, which established a paradigm that has continued unabated to the present day: Poor colonialized Third Worlders will fight the rich nation that controls them with bombs, often targeted at civilians, because that’s all they have. Whether they are “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” is a purely subjective matter, depending on to whom you’re listening. But armies dropping bombs on civilian cities, killing innocents with many times the proficiency of handmade explosives, is seen somehow, in the Western media mindset, as a more righteous action, and therefore, uneasy to label as “terrorism.” Vergès doesn’t live in a world where taking civilian lives a handful at a time is worse than, or even remotely equal to, invading or occupying Algeria or Palestine or Vietnam or Lebanon — in every case, he quite correctly illustrates the French government’s guilt in crimes far worse than any his clients have committed (Schroeder glosses over the Pol Pot issue a bit, but the Sétif massacre of 1945, in which the French killed somewhere between 10,000 and 45,000 Algerians beginning on the same day Germany surrendered, more than illustrates his point). The Iraq war is never referred to, but Schroeder is alive to the fact that Vergès might be a point man for the new millennium, when wars will be fought between the little and the big right where we live, and a new and more realistic kind of ethical mathematics are required.

[Photos: “Her Name Is Sabine,” Film Movement, “Terror’s Advocate” Magnolia, 2007]

“Her Name is Sabine” (Film Movement) and “Terror’s Advocate” (Magnolia Pictures) are now available on DVD.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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