When Global Terrorism Went By Another Name In a 5 1/2-hour drama, the acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas re-creates the life and era of the notorious terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal.
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When Global Terrorism Went By Another Name

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When Global Terrorism Went By Another Name

When Global Terrorism Went By Another Name

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Before Osama Bin Laden became the worlds most wanted terrorist, the distinction belonged to a Venezuelan known as Carlos the Jackal.

He was responsible for a series of attacks across Europe in the 1970s. Now, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has turned the story of Carlos into a globetrotting epic.

NPRs Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI: August 14th, 1994.

Unidentified Man: Good Evening. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the man known as Carlos the Jackal, after one of his many aliases, has finally been caught after decades of murderous and spectacular terrorism.

Mr. OLIVIER ASSAYAS (Filmmaker): To me he was just like some kind of media boogeyman. I mean, you know, he would pop here, pop there and be this kind of evil figure lurking somewhere.

QURESHI: Director Olivier Assayas.

Mr. ASSAYAS: He is this kind of terrorist-as-popstar or something, which is also, of course, you know, the limit of his career as a terrorist because fame and terrorism are two things that just don't go together. You know, terrorists are creatures of the dark, they can't be in the spotlight, and Carlos enjoyed the spotlight.

(Soundbite of film, "Carlos")

Mr. EDGAR RAMIREZ (Actor): (As Carlos) My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me.

QURESHI: Assayas says casting a spotlight on living characters posed aesthetic and legal challenges.

Mr. ASSAYAS: Dealing with real-life characters, dealing with recent history, its very delicate. Its very fragile. It can be blow up in your face to use a terrorist metaphor. So my safety net really was being as precise as I could, as factual as I could.

QURESHI: Assayas says "Carlos" is a film that couldnt have been made while the events were happening or even immediately after.

Mr. ASSAYAS: You have to wait a generation, like in the case of the history of Carlos, to have enough people who have written their life story on those events, to be able to somehow connect all the dots and make sense of what actually was going on behind the scene.

QURESHI: Assayas also used a massive canvas to tell that story. "Carlos" is five-and-a-half hours long.

Mr. ASSAYAS: In a shorter film, I would have had to condense things, to be much more heavy-handed. When you have the possibility of dealing with it not exactly in real time, it gives a much more accurate picture. So I dont think I would have tried to deal with Carlos if I had not had this kind of length.

QURESHI: There are a lot of long discussions, a lot of planes taking off and landing, and an insistence on detail: using real locations and the real languages spoken by his subjects. For that, the filmmaker chose Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez.

Mr. RAMIREZ: I speak English, Spanish, German, French, and Italian.

QURESHI: And in the film you also speak in Arabic?

Mr. RAMIREZ: Yeah, but that I learned phonetically.

(Soundbite of film, "Carlos")

Mr. RAMIREZ: (as Carlos) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. ASSAYAS: The story has to do with internationalism, revolutionary internationalism.

QURESHI: Director Olivier Assayas.

Mr. ASSAYAS: It involved beliefs that connected Middle Eastern with Europeans, with Latin Americans, with Japanese. So the issue is how those guys functioned together, you know, how they communicated, and of course the language is a very important part of it. And I feel that if I had used some kind of basic English with various accents, it would have been terribly fake. And also, it would not have respected the core of what was going on at the time.

QURESHI: What was going on was a complex web of disaffected young people searching for meaning in the wake of the Vietnam War, according to Louise Richardson, an Irish-born expert on transnational terrorist movements.

Dr. LOUISE RICHARDSON (Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of St. Andrews): They were altogether more articulate in their criticisms than they were in spelling out how the new society that they would create after the revolution would look like.

QURESHI: That is made clear in the films brutal centerpiece: Carloss brazen attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975, where he and his Arab and European partners took the ministers of the oil-rich nations hostage in the name of the Palestinian cause.

(Soundbite of film, "Carlos")

(Soundbite of gunfire)

(Soundbite of screaming)

QURESHI: But once that attack is in motion, the fractures and the mistrust within the group become evident.

(Soundbite of film, "Carlos")

Mr. RAMIREZ: (As Carlos) I organized the entire operation and I put you in. But I'm a soldier. I'm not a martyr.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) You're a traitor, nothing else.

Mr. RAMIREZ: (As Carlos) I am not a traitor.

In that scene, you can see how that romantic feeling was not enough to deal with the consequences.

QURESHI: Actor Edgar Ramirez.

Mr. RAMIREZ: Because many of them threw themselves into that adventure without measuring the politics that would be involved.

QURESHI: In the final act of the film, Carlos and his colleagues become pawns for government agencies in the thick of the Cold War.

Dr. RICHARDSON: He was almost a terrorist mercenary. He went from supporting nationalist cause to more like a Khalid Sheikh Muhammad kind of character, with a massive ego, and he ultimately proved fairly craven in fact.

QURESHI: His ego fueled a need for attention, and director Olivier Assayas says today's terrorists also need the media but to get past the snapshots and the soundbites. He says a filmmaker needs the time to tell their story and perhaps more importantly the passage of time.

Mr. ASSAYAS: The message is if we can do this about the past, someone will be able to do it about our own, you know, boogeymen and terrorists in the not so distant future.

QURESHI: "Carlos" is premiering in three parts on the Sundance Channel this week. It will be released in theaters this Friday in both an abridged version and in its original five and a half hours.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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