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Francesca reaches Tasmania

Francesca reaches Tasmania

The first copy of Francesca to reach Tasmania (unless you know different!)

The other day I received a photo purporting to be the first copy of Francesca to arrive in Tasmania. It reminded me what a rapidly moving and global business book distribution has become, how ideas can travel across continents and oceans at the click of a mouse.

It was rather different in the era when Francesca was set, the mid 1970s.  Long before the days of the internet, mobile phones and social media, it was far easier to keep people in the dark. Tyrants and dictators used this to their advantage. Hiding their shameful acts often required little more than muzzling the press, censoring the mail, closing the borders and keeping foreign journalists out of the country.

Now the problem is too much information – so much is accessible but how do you know what to look for amidst all the noise? The danger now isn’t so much something will be hidden from view, more that it will be overlooked amongst decreasing attention spans and the tsunami of information overload.

So far I’ve been blessed to have heard from readers as far afield as the United States, Canada, Asia and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom, where I am currently based. In the same way, I see from the stats pages that this blog is read in dozens of different countries around the world. When I look at the figures I am overawed at the power technology has to connect billions of people from all over the world.

There’s another reason I was particularly gratified to see a copy of Francesca reach the shores of Tasmania. I have a particular affection for Australia’s island state, for its rugged beauty, for the friendliness of its people, for its environment, much of which remains unspoilt. Some years ago I spent several months there, writing the first draft of a novel that will be published later this year. I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

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Sea cliffs along Tasmania’s spectacular coastline. Photo by John McLaine

Until then, I hope you are enjoying Francesca, wherever you are. Please continue to pass it on to your friends; I have found that word of mouth is still the most effective means of communication, even if it comes via twitter, Facebook or any of the other burgeoning social media out there. And if you have read it, please post a review, either here in the comments section or on Amazon.

You can order your copy of Francesca here 

The Act of Killing: surreal masterpiece or high-minded snuff movie?

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A fantasy of heaven recreated by mass killer Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated The Act of Killing

However the Oscars go when the envelopes are opened up on the 2nd March, there’s one film that seems destined to resonate around the world long after the final credits have rolled and the movie industry has turned its attention to the upcoming summer blockbusters. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, has been on a roll since its release, cleaning up at the major film festivals and garnering critical acclaim wherever it has been shown.

The film concerns itself with the purges that took place across Indonesia in 1965, inspired by the Suharto led Indonesian army to rid the military, the government and professions of communists or those suspected of communist sympathies. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

What makes The Act of Killing so unusual is the way it attempts to tell this story. Eschewing the usual witness statements, confrontations or dramatic reconstructions, the filmmakers track down perpetrators and invite them to re-enact their murders on film.

There is a reason for this, and it’s not just artistic choice. Oppenheimer’s initial attempts to gain testimony from victims of the massacres were thwarted by their terror of retribution, and then by obstacles placed in the director’s path by the Indonesian authorities. What went on throughout Indonesia in 1965 is fairly well known within the country, especially amongst the older generation who experienced it first hand. It’s hardly a state secret. Anyone with an internet connection and the time and inclination can get a pretty reliable account of what happened without too much difficulty. The problem is, until now no one in the West really cared, and in Indonesia it’s not a subject for open debate, or at least it wasn’t until the phenomenal success of Oppenheimer’s film. Many of the killers are well known within their communities and continue to enjoy not only impunity for their crimes, but connections at the higher levels of regional and national government.

It was only when Oppenheimer turned the story on its head by offering to narrate it from the perspective of the killers that he was able to break the deadlock. Such was their confidence in their invulnerability, these former mass murderers, many of them benign looking grandfathers, were happy to talk to the cameras. Not only were they willing to describe what they had done without apparent remorse, they were up for re-enacting their crimes in front of Oppenheimer’s cameras. Many were brought up on a diet of American gangster movies, and the idea of being the stars of their very own piece of cinéma vérité was apparently irresistible.

The device of standing back, letting the cameras roll and paying out enough rope until the subjects hang themselves (or in this case enough wire until they garrotte themselves), is not a new one. The director Nick Broomfield is probably one of its most successful practitioners, deftly deploying it to undermine the menace of Afrikaner white supremacist Eugène Terre-Blanche and turn him into an object of utter ridicule in his classic 1991 documentary “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife”.

However, the praise for Oppenheimer has not been universal. Along with the accolades, there’s a small but influential group of reviewers who have taken extreme exception to The Act of Killing. The BBC’s Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser found it particularly objectionable. “I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled We Love Killing JewsInstead of an investigation,  or indeed a genuine recreation, based on such humdrum aspects of the killings as why and how they occurred, and what they really had to do with the context of the Cold War, we’ve ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie. Porn for liberals indeed.”

The problem is, Oppenheimer’s solution to his difficulties in telling the world the story of the 1965 massacres doesn’t quite penetrate the darkness. The victims’ families were unable to tell their stories for fear of the consequences. The killers, who could tell their stories, were hampered by their complete inability to empathise with their victims or see events from any perspective other than their own. Fraser continues, “I find the scenes in the film where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance.”

There’s no doubt The Act of Killing is a tough film to watch. The version I saw ran to 2 hours 39 minutes, which was well over an hour more than I needed. By the end I felt utterly polluted, which I am sure is part of the point. Apparently even this was whittled down from over a thousand hours of footage. How I felt for the production team, having to live with it day in day out in their editing suites for years on end. Having these grisly scenes endlessly played out, with the ageing murderers given full rein to make-up and prosthetics like kids in a candy store, simply echoes Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion to the 1962 Jerusalem trial of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann about the banality of evil.

We get the point. We got the point 20 minutes ago. More is simply over-indulging these monsters who lack any sense of self reflection, or interest really. By befriending them, pandering to their sense of self-importance and giving them free rein to express the contents of their twisted minds, there is a danger Oppenheimer has become morally contaminated himself. He keeps pushing his subjects ever so gently, ever so subtly, for some kind of broader awareness of what they did, but at the end of the day it’s just not there. If they are eventually forced to confront the reality of what they did, it won’t come from their revolting little playlets, but from the justice their fellow citizens may well demand once they see this film. In interviews Oppenheimer comes across as strangely protective of the principal character Anwar Congo, but with or without an Oscar I doubt he will be able to shield him from the rage his fellow Indonesians will unleash upon him and his cronies. Ironically, it is the film’s critical and commercial success rather than its radical approach that poses the greatest threat to the killers and the greatest hope for their country.

Could it be that given his difficulties extracting testimony from victims and the extreme nature of his subject matter, Oppenheimer bumped up against the limits of the documentary? As a novelist, I cannot help thinking that fiction might be better equipped to deal with these stories. Naturally, I have to declare an interest. My own novel, Francesca, deals with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which occurred ten years on from the 1965 purges. There were differences, of course, but there were many similarities. It was the same army acting with the same brutality and callous disregard for human life. The captains in the purges were colonels by the time East Timor came along, the colonels generals. In both cases the United States gave the Indonesian government carte blanche to carry on doing what they were doing, the imperative of containing the threat of communism, however spurious it actually was, trumping any notion of human rights or justice.

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel that bears her name commences, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. She and her family suffer as hundreds of thousands of her fellow Timorese did at the hands of the Indonesian army. As the writer, I can choose how I narrate those events. I can speak for those whose voice has been suppressed. In the artificial world I create, I can paradoxically come closer to the truth than some supposedly factual reconstruction. For really, who actually cares about Anwar Congo? He was just one of thousands of like-minded thugs, his importance lying only in the fact he was representative of so many. In a novel I can place the reader wherever I want: inside Francesca’s head, with the soldiers, as casual onlooker, whatever best serves my overall aim of distilling the truth from the events as they unfold.

That has always been the higher purpose of fiction, its greatest strength aside from the sheer love and pleasure of losing oneself in a good story. It is also why the novel refuses to die, and why I have chosen it as a medium of expression. Of course I will be biased, and no doubt various authors’ tricks will creep in as emotions and sympathies are manipulated towards the direction I desire to lead the reader. But at least I am not at the mercy of some marijuana addled gangster in unexamined denial, and neither are my readers.

Whatever else it has done, The Act of Killing has well and truly lanced the noxious boil of murder and lies festering beneath the surface of Indonesian society, and for that the country owes Oppenheimer a massive debt. He and his team of filmmakers have created a forum, at considerable personal cost, in which an open debate can now take place. For anyone who knows Indonesia, that is no small achievement. On that level, if that level alone, he got the truth he wanted for his film, the truth that is a prerequisite for the reconciliation the Indonesian people so desperately need. Whether that is enough to justify the stomach churning violence that constitutes the larger part of The Act of Killing, whether that elevates it from a series of mini snuff movies to a surreal masterpiece, is another matter entirely.

Francesca, published by Betimes Books, can be ordered here

What’s in their cans?

Francesca is a period piece – I hesitate to call it a historical novel for fear of how that ages me. Invariably the characters were shaped by their times, and no more so than with regard to the music they liked to listen to.

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Robert Plant in full flow at the height of Led Zeppelin’s fame

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem both Eddie and Amanda had pretty good taste, though it wouldn’t have looked that way to music critics of the day. Hard though it is to believe in an era where people will pay several grand to see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (Eddie’s choice) at an O2 reunion concert, or keep a show like the Abba inspired Mamma Mia (Amanda) running for decades, both these acts were widely despised by the music establishment of the early to mid 1970s.

So far as these worthy arbiters of taste were concerned, Abba was throwaway bubblegum pop and Led Zeppelin music for adolescent retards. In a contemporary review of Led Zeppelin II Rolling Stone magazine described Robert Plant as “foppish as Rod Steward, but nowhere near as exciting” before going on to deride Jimmy Page as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs”. Back in 1976, if you’d tried to predict who would be listened to forty years on and cited as significant influences by the top artists of the early 21st Century, you’d have got very long odds against these two.

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Abba’s Agnetha Falkskog

The self styled intellectuals who controlled the music press were more into prog rock bands that if they haven’t been forgotten, are rarely talked about or heard on the radio: Yes, Hawkwind, Rush, as well as the more durable Genesis and Pink Floyd (though I would argue that Floyd were never really prog). When the Indonesian army marched into East Timor Peter Gabriel had just left Genesis, though his avant grade theatrics were less to Eddie’s taste than artists like Hendrix, the Stones and Jim Morrison, all of whom have been treated pretty consistently by the judgement of history.

Of course Amanda knew how deeply uncool it was to admit to liking the Swedish pop quartet, and whenever asked about her preferences would instead cite David Bowie, who was in the process of shedding his glam rock skin to emerge into the Thin White Duke.

To me what’s most poignant is all the music neither Amanda nor Eddie listened to because it hadn’t been written yet. It’s hard to imagine Bowie without Heroes, China Girl or Wild as the Wind, but that’s how it was. If you’d been sitting on a bar stool alongside Eddie with a can of Tiger in the early evening Kalimantan breeze and started discussing REM, Radiohead, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Blondie or The Clash, he’d have wondered what on earth you were talking about. An Elvis called Costello? And as for revering that icon of global peace, the late John Lennon, back in 75 and 76 when he wasn’t feuding with Paul McCartney he was boring the world to death with hits tedious agitprop.

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Bowie during his Thin White Duke years

And of course it was all on vinyl, 8 track cartridge or cassette. But if you’d really wanted to throw both Eddie and Amanda, not to mention every other character in the book, all you’d have to do is tell them you were about to order your copy of Francesca online, and read it on a Kindle.

Could Suharto have tamed Pussy Riot?

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Pussy Riot in happier days. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the tests applied to any society that aspires towards democracy is the way in which it responds to dissent, or challenges to its authority. Recently Vladimir Putin has found more attention than he would have chosen focused on an unlikely thorn in his side, namely three members of the Russian punk collective, Pussy Riot.

Their crime was to burst onto the space in front of the altar in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012 and stage an impromptu concert. The intention was to highlight the cosy and corrupt relationship between the Russian Orthodox church and the Putin government. Perhaps they were inspired by the scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and turned over the money lenders’ tables, decrying how the religious leaders of the day had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12).

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Inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of Pussy Riot’s notorious gig. Photo by Bruecke-Osteuropa, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If so, the assembled worshippers and the Russian authorities certainly didn’t see it that way. So far as they were concerned the Pussy Riot stunt was nothing more, nothing less than a blasphemous insult perpetrated in one of the most sacred places of their faith. Their sensitivity was almost certainly heightened by the fact that the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown to smithereens by the Soviets in the 1930s, only being rebuilt following the fall of communism.

Either way, three of the young women in the collective were arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment. One was then released on appeal, the other two were let out just in time for Christmas.

In the process they managed to become an international symbol of opposition to Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule, garnering a worldwide following and massive attention in the western media.

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Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot on trial in Moscow. Photo by Denis Bochkarev courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pussy Riot is a band in the loosest possible sense of the word. Their musicianship is non existent, and despite the enthusiastic support they have received from rock aristos like Sting and Peter Gabriel, their guitar work puts Sid Vicious up alongside Eric Clapton. It’s a shame really, because the name alone is to die for. But that’s the whole point. It’s not about slick, prepackaged music downloaded to your Apple app. Pussy Riot is an artistic and political statement, and if you don’t get it it’s because you’re part of the problem yourself. It’s more Dada than some global mega act from Live Nation doing the rounds of the world’s football stadia.

I don’t think Indonesia’s President Suharto would have “got” Pussy Riot either. If Nadya, Maria and the rest of the girls in the collective feel hard done by at the heavy handed treatment they’ve received from the Russian judicial system, they can at least console themselves they didn’t try to pull off a similar stunt in Suharto’s Indonesia.

Despite the fact that Indonesia in the 1970s never seemed a particularly devout Muslim society, I shudder to think what the consequences would have been of staging an impromptu punk protest in a Jakarta mosque. Off to the cells for a thorough aperitif beating, followed by several rounds of gang rape and torture as a main course, with a garrotting for dessert. Far from becoming poster girls for the likes of Madonna, they’d have more likely disappeared never to be heard of again. And that was before the strains of fundamentalism we in the west have come to associate with Islam really kicked off.

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Would these guys take any crap from Pussy Riot? Image courtesy of asiasociety.org

The heroine of my novel Francesca may well have “got” Pussy Riot, though in all likelihood she would have been perplexed by them. Having suffered dreadfully at the hands of the Indonesian military machine, she lacked the strength to take on a tough regime intolerant of dissent. She didn’t have an urge to change society, so much as to be left alone by it to live in peace.

I’d be fascinated to hear from readers, especially in Russia, Indonesia and East Timor. What are your views on Pussy Riot? Did Putin score an own goal in allowing his courts to crack down so hard on them? How would the situation be handled in today’s Indonesia? Feel free to comment, tweet, retweet and link back in.

Francesca, my novel set in 1970’s Indonesia is available now from Betimes Books.

Francesca – Genesis of an idea

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It’s easy to forget just how different the world was back in the mid 1970s, when Francesca was set. No mobile phones, no internet, no Starbucks on every street corner. Easier, too, for dictators to keep a lid on their shenanigans. You could take out a town, empty a region of its population without any fear of pesky demonstrators posting evidence of your atrocities on youtube for all the world to see and condemn.

So it’s hardly surprising the Indonesian invasion of East Timor passed me by, even though I was living in the region at the time, an expat teenager whose father worked in the oil business. The local media was strictly censored, whilst foreign correspondents who might have kicked up a fuss were for the most part unable to access the place. Besides, who was interested in what was going on in a backwater most people had never heard of?

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I encountered East Timor again. I was doing some volunteer work for Amnesty International in London, and kept coming across all these cases from the conflict. The more I looked into them, the more shocked I became, compounded by the more shocking revelation that I had been in Indonesia when this tiny country was gobbled up by its neighbour and large parts of its population annihilated.

Several hundred miles away our lives continued in their cocooned luxury, oblivious to what Suharto’s soldiers were doing. No one mentioned it, no one spoke out, no one did anything that might upset the cosy relationship between the Indonesian government and the western oil companies. Everyone was making money, and besides Indonesia was on our side, a bulwark against communism.

It was the discovery of these parallel worlds that inspired me to write Francesca. In particular, I was interested in people who straddled both, the ones with the fullest picture. Naturally, they would all be invented characters, but that is the freedom and the joy of fiction. As they took on their own lives, they created their own dramas, sorrows, joys, tragedies and triumphs. Out of all this Francesca was born.

Francesca will be published in September 2013 by Betimes Books

www.betimesbooks.com