Enemies of the state: framing political subversives in documentary film

O'Sullivan, Shane (2013) Enemies of the state: framing political subversives in documentary film. (PhD thesis), Roehampton University, .


This paper presents an extended analysis of my two recent feature documentaries, RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy (2008) and Children of the Revolution (2010), which seek to challenge state narratives and demystify the lives and actions of three central characters – Robert Kennedy’s convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan, the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof and Japanese Red Army leader Fusako Shigenobu. I explore key issues that arose during the production of these films, and the strategies a documentary filmmaker can use to re-investigate and re-present the lives of political subversives, using Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘field theory’ and Frederic Jameson’s ‘three levels of narrative’ as my theoretical framework. With RFK Must Die, I stress the primacy of the research and writing of documentaries in their power to challenge conventional wisdom and examine the interplay between historian, filmmaker and investigator in finding an alternative history. I explore the historiography of both Kennedy assassinations and the historical reliance on independent filmmakers to re-examine the state’s evidence and present the case for the defence. I also explore what issues affect credible witness testimony and what audiovisual evidence can tell us about a crime scene. I explore two key elements of Children of the Revolution: the decision to tell the stories of Meinhof and Shigenobu ‘through the eyes of their daughters’ and the use of archive concerning their revolutionary movements. I present a case study of my working relationship with Meinhof’s daughter, Bettina Röhl, analysing the complex issues of trust, identity and authorship that arose in telling Meinhof’s story from another person’s perspective. I also discuss the critical misalignment between the cost of archive and the budgets and prices paid for documentaries, and analyse the hypothesis of the recent Hargreaves Report (2011) that the audiovisual archive sector ‘is not fit for purpose for the digital age’.

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