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

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era