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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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