Dir: Havana Marking. UK. 2012. 90mins

Smash & Grab

The fascinating and gripping story of the Pink Panthers, a gang of diamond robbers operating all around the world, is investigated and exposed in Havana Marking’s smart – though never quite as exciting as one might expect – documentary, which makes clever use of partially animated ‘acted’ interviews with actual members of the team.

Perhaps most telling is an archive interview with Bozidar Spasic, a long-serving security official in the former Yugoslavia who admits that his unit supplied fake passports to criminals.

Smash & Grab: The Story Of The Pink Panthers, which had its world premiere at IDFA in Amsterdam, does a fine job in telling the story of the Pink Panthers, who turn out to be a series of interlinked gangs originating from the Balkans, whose diamond robbery escapades are the sort of things usually to seen in narrative feature films.

Marking’s film Afghan Star proved to be a critical success and sold in many territories, and with Smash & Grab she has assembled a film that has the real crime pedigree to appeal to buyers, plus its slickly shot structure and clever use of animation could well make it appealing as a theatrical release.

As well as interviews with those who have followed the criminal career of the Panthers – including journalist Milena Miletic and cop Chief Inspector Yan Glassey of the Swiss Central Brigade (who talks in his office, where he points to a large stuffed pink panther toy hanging from the ceiling in a noose – a joke gift from colleagues) – the film’s coup is interviews with several actual Panthers.

The stories they tell are true, but while of the voices are real the Panthers themselves are replaced by actors who have then been animated (in a painterly style, with the backdrops altered) so they can’t be recognised. Their testimony is fascinating, especially when interwoven with real-life security footage of their robberies and archive interviews.

Perhaps most telling is an archive interview with Bozidar Spasic, a long-serving security official in the former Yugoslavia who admits that his unit supplied fake passports to criminals and helped them cross borders simply so they wouldn’t commit robberies in their home country. “When they came back to Belgrade they had no need to steal…plus they spent money here,” he candidly admitted.

The breakup of former Yugoslavia saw many well trained and connected, and as the Panthers interviewed admitted, they all worked in small teams rather than being one fully-fledged operation. They would return to the Balkans, pass the diamonds to a courier and the goods would be speedily fenced.

Lela, one of the female panthers (played by Jasmin Topalusic) explained how having a woman on the team was vital for the pre-planning, and how she would go into stores to spot the where the gems were held and how good the security system was, while Mike (played by Tomislav Benzon) talked about the routine for each robbery and how time was of the essence.

There is great detail – and impressive footage – of a Panther robbery in Dubai at the Graff Store in the Wafi Mall, where more than $15million worth of jewels were stolen in a brazen robbery. But in this instance the Dubai police tracked a getaway car and identified and caught some of the gang. Most impressive in her interview is Dr Farioa Al Shamali of Dubai’s Forensic Science and Criminology Department who talks about how forensic clues helped solve the case.

As the thieves brazenly committed their crimes across the globe Interpol has been tightening its grip, with even the Dubai police chief hinting that arrest could even be made in the Balkans, which the gang regards as a safe haven. With many of the criminals being caught and extradited, the film asks -is this the end of the Pink Panthers?

Production companies: Roast Beef Films, Sabotage Films, BFI, BBC Storyville

International sales: Goldcrest Films International, www.goldcrestfilms.com

Producer: Mike Lerner

Executive producer: Martin Herring

Cinematography: Richard Gillespie

Editor: Joby Gee

Music: Simon Russell

Website: www.facebook.com/smashandgrabthemovie

Main cast: Tomislav Benzon, Jasmin Topalusic, Daniel Vivian, Rob Kennedy. With: Milena Miletic, Yan Glassery