Some of the most engaging films coming out of France these days are not dramas or thrillers, but documentaries, often made on tight budgets and restricted to broadcast on national television, then promptly forgotten. William Karel, whose documentaries have for years been a permanent fixture on local networks, is working diligently to ensure that his films don’t suffer the same fate. The director, who has made eight films about the US, returns to French soil with La fille du juge (My Dad is into Terrorism, 2006), based on the memoirs of Clémence Boulouque, the daughter of a high-profile anti-terrorist judge charged with the investigation of a series of bomb attacks that wracked France in the late 1980s, and who took his own life in 1990. Regarded as one of France’s foremost documentary filmmakers, Karel, whose résumé includes Le Monde Selon Bush (The World According to Bush, 2004) and CIA: Guerres Secrètes (CIA: Secret Wars, 2003), and whose thoroughness and uncanny ability to get notoriously taciturn government officials to open themselves up in interviews has earned him a devoted following abroad, remains unfairly neglected in the States. Fortunately, a number of his works have been trickling onto DVD over the past few years, some with English subtitles, with the prospect of a wider audience. My Dad is into Terrorism, only the second of this prolific director’s works to be screened in theatres, has recently been released on DVD by Canadian distributor Mongrel Media.
Active as a photojournalist from 1972 to 1983, Karel, 67, began making documentaries in 1987, creating no fewer than 30 in the space of two decades. His latest work, Poison d’Avril (2007), is a fictional documentary skewering the media for the role it played in Lionel Jospin’s poor showing in the second round of elections in the presidential race of 2002. My Dad is into Terrorism marks something of a departure for the director who, abandoning his customary talking-heads interviews and voice-over commentary, relies solely on passages from Clémence Boulouque’s book, “Mort d’un silence” (2003), as narrated by actress Elsa Zyberstein, and illustrated with family photos and images culled from some 50 or 60 family videos shot by her father on Super 8. Zylberstein’s recitation harmonizes exquisitely with Boulouque’s sensibility, her gentle, impassioned narration capturing perfectly the rhythms and cadences of the young author’s eloquent prose. In order to familiarize audiences unacquainted with the circumstances surrounding Judge Boulouque’s death and the charged political climate and media frenzy of the era, Karel rounds out the canvas with clips from contemporary news broadcasts, talk shows, and newspaper headlines. Karel’s crew also follows Ms. Boulouque, 28, as she wanders the streets of New York in cabs and on the subway, or alone at home proofreading her manuscript, throwing into relief her profound sense of isolation. The result is a decidedly unconventional documentary — not, Karel emphatically insists, a docu-drama — but a fascinating hybrid, signaling a natural progression for the director, who has for years wanted to branch out into fiction.
Clémence Boulouque’s story takes as its point of departure the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, where she had come to flee the disturbing memories of childhood, then transports us back to Paris, where terrorist bombings rocked the capital in the late 1980s, taking hundreds of lives. The 9/11 tragedy unleashes in Clémence a flood of memories and sensations: the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of childhood, the vacations in Greece and in the south of France — pleasant reminiscences soon shattered by vague apprehensions, gnawing fear and finally, numbing incomprehension. The turning point is when her father, Gilles Boulouque, is charged with uncovering those responsible for the attacks that rocked the capital in 1986 and 1987, paradoxically taking the entire family hostage to the very terrorism he was fighting against. Under constant surveillance, escorted by bodyguards, shunned by friends and neighbors and menaced with kidnapping and death threats, the family is deprived of any semblance of normality. As the judge’s responsibilities take him increasingly away from home, his nightly presence on television becomes a ritual for his wife and two children. A breakthrough occurs in 1987, when Wahid Gordgi, an interpreter at the Iranian embassy in Paris and key witness in the case, finally agrees to be questioned by Boulouque, triggering a series of events that were to have devastating consequences for the judge. Ironically, Judge Boulouque, the most threatened and protected official living in France, could not be protected against himself. On the evening of December 13, 1990, in the wake of allegations of a political cover-up and attacks by the media, the judge took his own life, when Clémence was only 13-years-old. While the film remains resolutely focused on what it means for a young girl to lose her father, its other themes: terrorism, the role of the media in shaping public opinion, judicial independence, and government corruption – have farther-reaching implications. Mongrel Media’s transfer is excellent.
Distributor: Mongrel Media
Theatrical release: 2006
DVD release date: March 1, 2007
Run time: 84 min
Presentation: 16:9 anamorphic
Subtitles: English (optional)