Smash and Grab has all the ingredients of a heist movie – a loveable rogue diamond thief, a glamorous femme fatale, and meticulously planned heists from Europe to Japan to Dubai. Only this isn’t a George Clooney movie. This is, as director Havana Marking describes it, a ‘noir documentary.’ This is real.
The Pink Panthers are a fluid network of jewel thieves, based for the most part in the Balkans. The film traces their origins to the upheavals of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the extensive sanctions enacted against Serbia. Fascinating documentary footage, along with hilarious holiday programme excerpts detailing the delights of Tito’s Yugoslavia, chart the country’s descent into mayhem. Was it really twenty years ago? As Serbia’s economy all but disintegrated, criminality flourished. Small-time smugglers got ambitious, and the Panthers were born. Would they have ventured down this path anyway? Who knows? War presents people with stark choices, and occasionally with opportunities.
Serbia has had something of an image problem since the break-up of Yugoslavia and, as investigative journalist Milena Miletic put it when she discovered the Panthers were most likely predominantly Serbian: “Fuck, this is all we need.”
The film takes an innovative approach to its glamorous subject matter, not least in its depiction of the Panthers ‘Mike’ and ‘Lela’. Portrayed by actors, they are then animated in a time-consuming process known as rotoscoping, making it clear that their identities are being hidden.
Refreshingly, Smash and Grab acknowledges that, yes, crime can pay, and yes, it can provide a hell of an adrenaline rush. Yet, as the film progresses, things get darker, exploring the wider criminal world the Panthers inhabit, a world of drug-running, human trafficking and blood diamonds. In a Q&A at the Frontline Club in London, Havana Marking noted that, in a robbery that took place since the film was finished, a man was killed. Their crimes are not so ‘victimless’ after all.
As the film has its US premiere in New York on 31 July, the Pink Panthers have hit the news again. Bosnian Milan Poparic, serving time for his role in a 2009 robbery, broke out of a prison in Orbe, Switzerland. Maybe he wanted to see the movie.