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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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Give Back

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

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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