Gangsters’ paradise

Ryan Gilbey reviews three documentaries: <em>The Act of Killing, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer</em> and <em>Stories We Tell.</em>

The Act of Killing (15); Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer (15); Stories We Tell (12A)
dir: Joshua Oppenheimer; dirs: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner; dir: Sarah Polley

One compliment applicable to all documentaries regardless of quality is that they are never miscast. The genre has more risk of appearing disingenuous than any other kind of film, since its relationship to truth is so intimate. But no one can complain that, say, this chap hadn’t done enough research to play a homeless drug addict, or that woman was all wrong in the role of the CEO.

Life can still throw up jarring dislocations between a person’s appearance and behaviour. Take Anwar Congo, a doddery but elegant old man with a wry smile and a silver fuzz of wool-like hair. As he wanders the streets of Medan, Indonesia reminiscing about the 1960s, he could pass for a member of the Buena Vista Social Club. Here is where he used to sell cinema tickets, while over there he would whistle fondly at passing women. And look – across the street is the office where he would kill people. Ah, memories. Anwar climbs to the rooftop terrace that was the site of many hundreds of executions often performed using his preferred method of garrotting with wire. Less blood that way. Less stink. “I’m a happy man,” he confides before breaking into an impromptu cha-cha-cha, literally dancing on his victims’ graves.

For The Act of Killing, the director Joshua Oppenheimer invited Anwar and several other former gangsters and paramilitaries, all of them instrumental in carrying out the murders in Indonesia of between 500,000 and 2 million suspected communists, to restage their crimes for the camera in any film genre of their choosing. There is no chance of prosecution. Indonesian politicians boast openly of employing gangsters to carry out housekeeping (“Beating people up is sometimes needed,” says the vice president) and the presenter of the country’s equivalent of The One Show enquires blithely about different styles of execution as though comparing cupcake recipes.

The men take as much pride in their filmmaking project as they once took in torture and murder. Among other episodes, they come up with a gruesome interrogation scene in the style of a 1940s Warner Bros gangster flick, and a musical number set to “Born Free” in which a victim thanks his own killer for despatching him to heaven. Blood and irony run thick. Wearing grisly prosthetics that resemble chopped ham, Anwar and chums burst out laughing in the middle of filming. I believe the technical term is “corpsing”.

There’s no mystery over why the concept appealed to these bloodstained ghouls. They bulge with the egotism of the psychopath; no prodding is required to get them spilling the beans about spilling communist guts, or drifting into elegiac reveries about the thrill of raping your way through a burning village. Oppenheimer assesses correctly that their behaviour is beyond belief; one scene features Anwar’s former colleague Adi Zulkadry (“Adi! How’s the family?”) chuckling as he recalls stabbing dozens of ethnic Chinese in the street. (The persecution and extortion of the Chinese continues there today, as the film demonstrates.)

But the director has hit upon a form that renders these atrocities instead as unsparing X-rays of the murderers’ vast delusions. In giving them enough creative freedom, not to mention enough rope, the movie can drill more deeply into the psychology of genocide than a straitlaced equivalent could ever have done.

It’s poisonous down there, though not altogether without shame. As the film-making intensifies, Anwar admits to being haunted by the memory of a severed head, its peepers glaring accusingly. “I’m always gazed at by those eyes I didn’t close,” he laments. Adi is more phlegmatic; he can sleep at night. “It’s all about finding the right excuses,” he says.

Two other new documentaries explore less effectively the idea of how performance can reveal the truth. In Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer, the masks are literal: the gaily coloured tea-cosy balaclavas of three Russian women whose musical protest against the unity of church and state, staged in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, made them a cause célèbre. While it’s enlightening to discover just how ramshackle the preparations were (“Let’s do the boxing thing!” is what passes for choreography in rehearsals), and to meet up close the delicate, dazed rebels responsible for making the veins in Vladimir Putin’s forehead throb, there’s nothing probing or problematic about the film itself. The story, rather than the plain-Jane telling of it, keeps us watching.

It’s the other way around in Stories We Tell, in which the Canadian actor-director Sarah Polley unpicks the matter of her own paternity. There wouldn’t be enough material here for a feature, were it not for the games Polley plays with the documentary form. We see her instructing her father in his line readings of the voiceover she has written, making him start over if he fluffs a word. And the homemovie footage, that guarantee of authenticity, strays suspiciously into places no Super 8 camera would have gone. Polley is working in the tradition of Orson Welles, but her trickery can be exasperating; it also neutralises many of the emotional revelations. To get the measure of the film, though, be sure to stay for the end credits and read the fine print.

The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell open 28 June; Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer opens 5 July

Members of the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot on film.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear