My starting point will be a brief description of the programme’s contents. The programme was a biography of Ilich Ramirez Shanchez, a.k.a Carlos the Jackal. It plotted his rise from the son of a wealthy lawyer in Venezuela to the worlds most wanted man and is fall to incarceration in solitary confinement in a French Prison. The programme used library footage of the aftermaths of some of the attacks Carlos carried out as well as having opinions voiced by several biographers of Carlos as well as the former director of the CIA’s anti-terrorism branch.
I have decided to assess the programme from a structuralist prespective. I will therefore be looking at the narrative structure and semiotics of the programme. At the most basic level, the documentary closely follows Vladimir Propp’s 5 stages of narrative structure:
1. A state of equilibrium – we are introduced to the young Ilich who has a good life and everything is perceived as good in the world around him.
2. Disruption of the equilibrium – Ilich becomes Carlos and commits acts of terrorism.
3. Recognition of disruption – the Police investigate the crimes.
4. An attempt to repair the disruption – Carlos is pursued both physically and politically
5. Equilibrium is re-instated – Political changes means the arrest and incarceration of Carlos the Jackal, the World is now once again a safe and peaceful place to be.
The above examples are taken within the context of the documentary alone, the world was not a peaceful place at the time of Ilich’s childhood, however, that is how the viewer perceives it. There are childhood pictures of the future terrorist shown whilst voice over descriptions are given off a child.
When looking in more detail at the thirty one functions Vladimir described, there is a problem as Carlos the Jackal is the main character in this unfolding drama, however, he is not the ‘hero’ as described by Propp. The viewer is made to feel that this person is abhorrent, is crimes are described in detail and are dramatised by actors. This technique also amplifies the narrative presence, in that the use of actors is primarily a device employed by fictional programmes which allows the action, shot, lighting all to be controlled giving the desired impression.
Furthermore, a major fictional aspect to the documentary is the emphasis on the ‘legend’ of Carlos the Jackal. In the first place this was an alias that Ilich created and for whom he also created a separate personality or character. Secondly, the media played up to this fiction, portraying Carlos the Jackal to be an amplified version of the already fictional character created by Ilich. The Jackal part of the nickname is taken from the fiction book “Day of the Jackal” which was supposedly owned by Ilich.
Carlos the Jackal is fiction who doesn’t exist in the real world it has an arbitrary relationship with the realworld person Ilich Ramirez Shanchez. The fictional aspect is emphasised by media claims that Carlos was the mastermind behind the Munich Olympic killings, when records show that he was teaching Spanish in London and was not absent from work for any period during the Olympics. It is also clear that Ilich revelled in his nickname and media persona and a possibility that he came to believe it. He was the ringleader of a gang who stormed an OPEC meeting, his words on entering the meeting room were “I am Carlos the Jackal, you know me.”
There was also discussion in the programme of various governments fictionalisation of Carlos, providing an image and a focal point for anti-terrorism sentiment, in a similar way to how Osama Bin Laden represents terrorism now. Brian Jenkins make the point:
“Carlos personified what until then had been faceless violence, here were no anonymous men belonging to sets of initials, no voices on telephones, but a face to terrorism.”
Looking at this point from a semiotic viewpoint, Carlos the Jackal is the symbol for Ilich Ramirez Shanchez while at the same time being the global symbol for terrorism. This is emphasised by a comment made half in jest by David Yallop – “If it rained in Cornwall, it was probably Carlos’ fault”
Although his actual effectiveness as a terrorist is questionable, he represents, in the eyes of the world all that is evil about terrorism. If Carlos the Jackal can be captured then the world will be a safe place. This is emphasised by the language used to describe Carlos’ current situation “safely locked away in a French prison.” It can be assumed that this ‘safety’ is not for Carlos benefit, but for the world at large which is now a ‘safe place’ because of Carlos’ imprisonment.
One interesting point about the structure of the programme is the fact that there are no interviews with Carlos and no statements made by him. All the information that the viewer is presented with is second hand. There is no place in the piece where the voice if Ilich is directly heard. This may well be because the programme makers were unable to get any, however, the lack of direct contact with the subject of the piece is convenient for the programme makers in that they can control completely the story which is being told, Carlos has no opportunity to defend himself or correct any of the information presented by the interviewed ‘experts’.
Returning to the dramatised sections of the documentary, one in particular makes a good example of several semiotic devices. The clip in question portrays an attempted assassination that Carlos carried out. He burst into the house of the head of Marks and Spencer went upstairs and found his intended victim in the bathroom, he shot once at point blank range, at this point the gun jammed and Carlos fled. This sequence was acted out from a first person perspective, with the camera bursting into a house and running up some stairs. The point of view then changes to be behind a door, the door opens and a person holding a gun torwards the camera can be seen in the shadows before a shot is fired. One important point about the shot on the inside of the bathroom is that when the figure enters, the camera is looking up at the gun, this gives the viewer the feeling of being a victim to the dominant gunman.
Secondly the whole sequence is filmed in black and white with intense shadows, giving the feeling of film-noir. This use of black and white film is intended to make the viewer watch the sequence as real rather than a dramatisation thus giving the impression that the sequence is factually accurate. The use of the first person camera has two effects, in the first instance it makes the viewer identify with Carlos and feel his adrenaline and panic as he attempts an assassination, in the second instance the viewer is in the shoes of the victim as the gun is pointed directly out at the audience, in this way the viewer condemns the actions and feels that they too could be a victim of this violence.
To conclude then, the combination of syntagms chosen as well as the narrative given to the story presented gives the viewer a picture of the legendary Carlos the Jackal which portrays him as a man who played the media with the expertise of ‘spin’ trained politician. A man who inspired a fear of action far greater than the actual action he was capable of. The audience is made to think that he achieved almost star status through clever publicity and media stunts. This relates to current televisual terrorist coverage, the attacks on September 11th 2001 were televised live worldwide and were apparently more devastating than planned by Osama Bin Laden. The subsequent coverage he received raised him to the status of the most wanted man in the world, a position vacated when Carlos the Jackal was captured in 1994. Terrorism is advertising taken to it’s most extreme.