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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism