Fascinating documentary by Havana Marking about a network of phenomenally successful jewel thieves. Turns out these guys honed their craft as smugglers during the break-up of Post-Tito Yugoslavia. Excellent meld of historical & robbery footage plus talking head & animated interviews. (JLH: 4/5)

Full title: “Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers.” Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. Not yet seen by Rich.


Halfway through Havana Marking’s fascinating new documentary Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, I had one of those “I cudda had a V-8” moments. I literally smacked myself on the forehead, wondering how I had missed something so obvious for such a long time.

In the past decade, I have seen several terrific films about internecine wars in the former Yugoslavia, so I thought I had a feel for the subject. But watching Smash & Grab made me realize my mistake. Most of the films I’ve seen have been from the woman’s POV. Grbavica (written & directed by Jasmila Zbanic, Snow (written & directed Aida Begic), and In the Land of Blood & Honey (the amazingly accomplished first feature written & directed last year by Angelina Jolie) all tell gut-wrenching stories about women’s lives in circumstances too extreme to ever fully comprehend. And the stories I’ve seen about men in the same period have been from the outsider’s POV. The protagonists in Welcome to Sarajevo are journalists, and “Joshua,” the character played by Dennis Quaid in Savior, is an American mercenary.

To the extent I even thought about what “ordinary men” were doing during this horrific period, I guess I thought they were either combatants (on one side or another), or I thought they were laying low to escape becoming embroiled in the nightmare around them. But in fact there was a whole category of men to which I had never given any thought whatsoever: the smugglers. You would think someone who has read as much as I have about the Warsaw Ghetto would have thought of this herself, but no, not even once. Mea culpa!

Smash & Grab is about a network of highly accomplished jewel thieves who have planned and execute audacious heists in multiple European capitals and Persian Gulf states. With tongue in cheek, they call themselves “The Pink Panthers” after Blake Edwards’ enormously popular comedies (starring Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau).

After showing footage of the Pink Panthers in action (taken by thwarted surveillance cameras meant to provide their owners with “security”), Marking interviews various police investigators and journalists who provide details on many of the robberies attributed to the Pink Panthers. They estimate the dollar value of their total take in the hundreds of millions.

Once she has our full attention, Marking drops back into her history lesson.

“Yugoslavia” is one of those artificially-created countries that came to be at the end of World War I after the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. After World War II, Marshall Josip Broz Tito held it together for decades as the dictator of a “socialist federation” allied with the Soviet Union, but when he died in 1980, the pieces quickly began separating into independent nation-states (e.g., Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, etc). That’s when the situation degenerated into a bloody fight for turf.

Marking takes no sides. She simply shows footage of what life was like in Yugoslavia during Tito’s reign versus what happened afterwards. In hopes of ending the conflict, the European Union imposed sanctions, and that’s when the smuggling began in earnest. Men who might have held ordinary jobs in more stable times fanned out across the globe, building underground organizations abroad that fed Black Markets back home. Eventually the wars ended, at which point most of these men returned to their countries to rebuild… But some remained outlaws in search of new opportunities, and these are the men who formed the nucleus of the Pink Panthers.

Marking also has two fascinating inside sources: a man called “Mike” and a woman called “Lela.” (Although the Pink Panthers were a mostly male fraternity, they did use a few women for reconnaissance work. Gorgeous, beautifully clad women, who rarely aroused suspicion by their “window shopping,” were able to help plan hits in which they never actually participated.)

To protect their identity, Marking animates Mike and Lela, and she has actors speak their dialogue. Several filmmakers have used rotoscoping and similar techniques to great effect in their recent films (e.g, Sita Sings the Blues, Waking Life, and Waltz with Bashir). I love it! It dramatizes the scene without dressing actors up for recreations, a documentary technique I generally find far more false and disturbing (e.g., Blessed Is the Match and No Place on Earth). Mike and Lela both make invaluable first-person contributions to a story that would not be half so revealing without them.

Havana Marking made Afghan Star a few years back, an award-winning film I heard a lot about but never saw. But having seen Smash & Grab, I will go out and look for it because I am now a Havana Marking fan!

TheSource“Mike” (above) is credited to Animation Director Tony Comley.

Photo Credits: Doppleganger Releasing.

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