Focus on evil
by Ken Hechtman
(Originally appeared in Montreal Mirror, Vol. 19, No. 6, 2003)
Richard Stanley is best known to Fantasia audiences as the sci-fi/horror director of Dust Devil (Fantasia 1997) and Hardware (Fantasia 1998). This year, he's bringing three documentaries, two of which have never before been shown in North America. Voice of the Moon (1990), his first film, chronicles the defeat of the Afghan mujahideen in the 1989 Battle of Jalalabad. The White Darkness (2002), an investigation into Haitian voodoo, was shot during the 1994-95 U.S. intervention there. The Secret Glory (2001) tells the story of a Nazi occultist's search for the Holy Grail. The Mirror spoke to him from his home in London.
Mirror: You've said before that the common thread between Voice of the Moon and the other documentaries you're presenting at Fantasia is that they're all investigations into evil - or into what Western civilization commonly labels as evil.
Richard Stanley: I've always been attracted to things which no one will ever talk about, maybe just through lack of information. We've all got a fascination with finding out what things are really about. Also, I write horror movies, and in the back of my mind is always the thought that there might be a good [documentary] in it, certainly each time I set out trying to write a horror story and ended up making a documentary instead.
Ironically, one of the starting points of Voice of the Moon was probably The Omen. I was always frustrated that no one had ever made a movie about an active, adult anti-Christ. When I was 15 or 16, I was working on something suitably apocalyptic, and dreamed up this fully-blown arms dealer/warlord anti-Christ figure and set it in Afghanistan.
M: The people in the film are the mujahideen of the Yunus Khalis group -
RS: Yeah. How'd I end up with them?
M: Exactly. They had the reputation of being very secretive and hostile to Westerners. Only Al-Qaeda itself was supposed to be harder to get in with. How did you get in with them?
RS: Well, they weren't really... The Wahhabis were worse than anyone. The Wahhabis would have shot me on sight. When I was around them I would always cover my face and speak Kushain, which is an Afghani mountain dialect, grew my beard and tried to look like I came from there.
Where are they now
M: About five years after you shot Voice, a number of the soldiers from the Yunus Khalis group, including a 30-year-old junior commander by the name of Mohammed Omar, would go on to form the Taliban. Did you run into anybody in 1989 who went on to bigger and better things?
RS: None of the people who are important now were important then. Osama bin Laden was still in the construction business. The regional commander that I ended up spending the most time around, who was in Kunar Province - because I'd always fancied seeing Kaffiristan and the mountains - was Hazrat Ali. He was kind of a lovable rogue, but silly. We were his guests and he had to look after us. He liked us because I had a fantastic map from an American Air Force base in Missouri. They were trying to conduct the Battle for Jalalabad while I was out there and were doing it with two X marks on a sheet of paper. Having access to a map gave them a lot of cohesion - if you unfolded the map, people would generally sit down around it.
But the mujahideen were really un-together. In the crucial lead-up to the battle, Hazrat Ali went to Pakistan to find a bride for his brother and put his younger brother in charge of the whole operation, which was a tremendous mistake.
Back in the present day, Hazrat Ali has now been put in charge of the whole Jalalabad area. He was also in charge of the allied hunt for Osama Bin Laden, who ended up holing up in Tora Bora.
M: Now I've placed him. Hazrat Ali was the guy who took $30,000 (U.S.) to let Osama ride his horse through the lines at Tora Bora -
RS: Well, he was the guy who completely failed to capture him, anyway. I saw him turning up in Time and I couldn't believe that this guy was in charge of catching Osama. He was the guy that we knew because he was getting his information from us, from our map. It was an eerie thought. And the map itself had come out of an American airbase in Missouri. So the idea of them turning to Hazrat Ali as the expert that everyone trusted to bring Osama in was a little surprising.
M: Voice is a piece of history, but it's not a history lesson. The audience gets the immediacy of the event, but not the context and so we have to bring something to it. On the soundtrack, instead of narration you have Sufi poetry and while the passages do fit the scenes, none of them are from the language or the culture or the religion of the people on the screen.
RS: That's deliberate. At the time I was very influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov and people who took a pretty austere approach. We never intended it for commercial exhibition anyway, so it doesn't make a lot of concessions to the audience. The voice-over is quite pagan, the sun-filled idol and references to red wine and such.
I was pissed at the Muslims for having exterminated a pagan culture in the first place, and also the thing that kept drawing me back was the thread of magic and the old religion that was lurking around the place. The sense that there was something out there was very beguiling and I wanted to go towards it and I kept being diverted by the war, of course.
Voodoo that they do
M: The story that I heard about White Darkness is that you were commissioned to do a straight political piece on the American invasion of Haiti and you went off on this voodoo tangent.
RS: No, it's actually completely the other way 'round. I was commissioned to do a straight piece about voodoo for the BBC. Then of course, when we got out there, we found out there was a political context that we weren't expecting that came crashing into the foreground.
M: The voodoo rituals that you filmed, can anybody just walk in off the street and see those? How did you get in to see that stuff?
RS: We bribed them. With British taxpayers' money. The British taxpayer paid for the black goat, for instance, that [the priest] Altes Paul slaughters, which I think is a tremendous abuse of his position. We also made a deal with [another priest] Abu Jah, the Emperor of Sucre, that we would feed everyone at the festival. There are some very telling out-takes where you see a white hand reach into the frame holding a bottle of rum, pouring it into people's mouths.
M: Voodoo's seen by Westerners as being evil - certainly the American Christian fundamentalist soldiers and missionaries thought it was - but the way you show it, it's not purely good nor evil. It just is. It's sort of amoral.
RS: I figured you had to be fair. A lot of documentaries I've seen on voodoo try to take a pro-voodoo slant and take an Abu Jah at face value.
M: Abu Jah comes across as a good guy. Altes Paul is clearly an operator.
RS: People generally tend to leave out Altes Paul because in a straight sort of Afro-Caribbean culture piece, this is all kind of the stuff you're not supposed to mention. Just hearing about him, I'd say, "Hang on... a secret society that does what? That eats people?" I couldn't help but try to get closer to it.
I gave Altes a Masonic handshake, which seemed to work. A lot of them seem to be Freemasons, for some reason that must be to do with the original French occupancy and the French Revolution.
M: Okay, Secret Glory. Now an unscrupulous festival programmer might bill it as yet another "Occult Roots of Nazism" piece, but it's not really that. It's the story of one specific Nazi occultist, Otto Rahn. And you tracked down a number of people who knew him in different capacities, and one says he was a delicate, sensitive kid, another says he was a serious historical and mythological scholar, another says he was a committed Nazi, another says he was a reluctant Nazi. And we never know what you think.
RS: It was incredibly hard to define whether Otto was on the side of the angels or not. He plainly believed he was - or at least that Lucifer was a bit misunderstood. I haven't made up my mind yet whether Otto's a genuine bad guy out of an Indiana Jones movie or whether he can be saved.
M: The so-called devil-worshippers who were the subject of Rahn's research are the good guys of Secret Glory. Can you explain the Cathars for our home audience?
RS: The logic behind their belief was that there was obviously evil and misery in the world, life was often nasty, brutish and short in the 12th century. The idea that God wasn't actually responsible for all the evil in the world was fairly appealing. God created one's soul and within each person there's some spark that can't be touched by the material world, but the material world itself was inherently sinful and ruled by the Devil. Rather than seeing it in terms of good and evil, it's kind of in terms of spirit and matter. Any movement that tends toward the spirit is naturally a movement towards the light. Something which tends toward the material tends to be what we would see as evil. I don't think of it necessarily as Christianity turned inside out as just sort of a confusion in terms.
Some people would claim that the Cathars descended from the Essenes, that they were the older and more original form of Christianity, similar to the Bogomils or the Lollards who were exterminated in England.
M: And the Cathar story is also a Holocaust story, in the sense of great genocidal destruction by fire. Otto Rahn would have understood the Holocaust better than anyone because he saw it as a scholar, as a participant and then finally as a victim.
RS: There's an intense irony in that, as if the events almost had to compel themselves to happen again.
Shades of festivals past
M: I understand you're coming in to Fantasia for almost the whole month.
RS: I hope so. I certainly enjoy it out there. It's always been one of my favourite festivals in the world, mostly because of the hospitality and the creative guests involved. The first time was pretty much one of the wildest festivals I've ever been to... a very volatile mix of guests. A lot of people would not invite characters like myself or Jim Van Bebber or Coffin Joe in years gone by. They're fun people to spend time with.
M: People still talk about '97 -
RS: Yeah, it was insane. I was told to come down from a flagpole by police one morning in front of a building somewhere. The live version of [Fantasia programmer] Karim Hussain acting out the missing reel of Deep Red, the Sense-Surround version of Stage Fright, where we tried to extend the movie out into the auditorium by raining feathers on them, are memories that'll always stick with me.
Voice of the Moon screens with White Darkness on Tuesday, July 29, 5:20pm, at Concordia's Hall theatre (1455 de Maisonneuve W.) and on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2:30pm, at the De Sève Cinema (1400 de maisonneuve w.). The Secret Glory screens on Thursday, Aug. 7, 5:20pm, in the Hall Theatre and on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2:30pm, in de Sève. Stanley will be hosting all screenings.