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 “Ã€ 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.
In contrast, Barbet Schroeder’s bio-doc “Terror’s Advocate” (2007) is as complicated and duplicitous as full-on espionage. Our subject is Jacques VergÃ¨s, 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. VergÃ¨s 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 VergÃ¨s 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 VergÃ¨s head-on. Simply, VergÃ¨s 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.” VergÃ¨s 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 SÃ©tif 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 VergÃ¨s 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.