Anatomy of a murder : Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy

O'Sullivan, Shane [Director] (2018) Anatomy of a murder : Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy. (Video).


Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted Palestinian assassin of Bobby Kennedy, has never been able to remember the shooting and defense psychiatrists concluded he was in a hypnotic state at the time. Three weeks before the assassination in 1968, Sirhan hypnotized himself in his room and wrote “R.F.K. must die” repeatedly in his notebook – “automatic writing” he reproduced under hypnosis for the psychiatrists before his trial. I first read about Sirhan’s story twelve years ago and it triggered all kinds of cinematic associations in my mind. A few months later, I saw Oldboy (2003) at Cannes and O Dae-su’s fifteen-year amnesia, feverish notebook writing and vulnerability to post-hypnotic suggestion carried strong echoes of Sirhan’s case. While trying to adapt it into a screenplay, I found new evidence of possible CIA involvement in Kennedy’s murder that led to a feature documentary RFK Must Die (2008), a book Who Killed Bobby? (2008) and my PhD thesis (O’Sullivan, 2013). In the summer of 2015, I wrote a chapter on the crime and punishment of Sirhan for a Foucault-themed collection (O’Sullivan, 2016a) and found myself drawn back into his case, leading me to produce this video essay to coincide with his 2016 parole hearing. Sirhan’s defense team argue that he was a real-life Manchurian Candidate and for the last ten years, Dr. Daniel Brown, a leading psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has worked with Sirhan to recover his memory of the shooting. On three occasions during these sessions, given a hypnotic cue: Mr. Sirhan takes his firing stance, hypnotically hallucinates that he is shooting at circle targets at a firing range, automatically starts shooting, and subsequently is completely amnesic for the hypnotically induced behavior (Brown 2016: 3). Legal and popular acceptance of such evidence is constrained by the notion that the Manchurian Candidate theory is the stuff of movie fiction. Jeon notes that O Dae-su’s secrets in Oldboy (2003) “are snuffed out by the kind of hypnosis that works only in movies” (2009: 715) while Marcus tells us the source novel for The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is “a cheaply paranoid fantasy” (2002: 41). In fact, as congressional enquiries in the seventies proved, both Condon’s book and Frankenheimer’s film were unwittingly rooted in real CIA experiments in the early fifties to create an amnesiac assassin using drugs and post-hypnotic suggestion. This video essay remixes my documentary RFK Must Die (2008) and previously unseen footage of Sirhan’s 2011 parole hearing with echoes of his case found in movies on amnesia and post-hypnotic suggestion. The essay flows from the crime of the accused and his foggy recollection; to his legal defense, psychiatric testimony, the conspiracy theory and his parole hearing. The film plays with the nature of memory – amnesia induced by trauma or coercion, its status as evidence and the writing of political memory in fiction and non-fiction film.

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