Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Review: Pitcairn: Paradise Lost

Pitcairn Island has been a fascination to many for decades. Way out in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific, it was discovered by the British in 1767, and populated in 1790 by a group of mutineers from HMS Bounty and a number of Tahitian men and women led by Fletcher Christian. Alcohol, murder, disease, and a range of other nasties killed off most of the population. John Adams began reading the ship's Bible and the Church of England's Prayer Book. The islanders converted to Christianity and constructed 'a new and peaceful society' that has become legendary. They later became Seventh-day Adventists. Here is what Sir Charles Lucas wrote in Pitcairn's register book in 1829:

Many notable cases of religious conversion have been recorded in the history of Christianity, but it would be difficult to find an exact parallel to that of John Adams. The facts are quite clear. There is no question as to what he was and did after all his shipmates on the island had perished. He had no human guide or counsellor to turn him into the way of righteousness and make him feel and shoulder responsibility for bringing up a group of boys and girls in the fear of God.

He had a Bible and a Prayer Book to be the instruments of his endeavour, so far as education, or rather lack of education, served him. He may well have recalled to mind memories of his own childhood. But there can be only one straightforward explanation of what took place, that it was the handiwork of the Almighty, whereby a sailor seasoned to crime came to himself in a far country and learnt and taught others to follow Christ. (cited in Ford 2008, emphasis supplied)

Idyllic, exotic, Christian, peaceful, crime-free, away from the rest of the sinful world, 'the handiwork of the Almighty'. Wouldn't you just love to live there?

Until recently, you might very well have wanted to. The problem is that, in 2000, a police investigation began that was to uncover widespread, decades-long, multi-generational child sexual abuse that probably goes back to the beginnings of the island. Almost every man on the island is implicated and almost every girl who lived there has been a victim of this abuse. The ensuing trials have torn this small community apart and the romantic mythology around Pitcairn Island is forever gone.

Kathy Marks was one of only six journalists allowed on the island during the trials. Her book Pitcairn: Paradise Lost tells the sickening tale of the generations of abuse, the trials, and the aftermath down to its conclusion in 2007. Well — the conclusion as far as legalities go. The women who suffered at the hands of the incredible evil of men, who were allowed to perpetrate these crimes, suffer on as these pedophiles and abusers are "punished" with sentences that are minimal compared to what they would receive in Australia or New Zealand.

Marks's book is agonising to read. Her story is divided into two parts. The first part is on the island itself as she describes Pitcairn's 'surreal little universe in the middle of nowhere'; the romantic mythology that has developed around Pitcairn — now completely shattered; the courage of one girl who finally speaks out about the pervasive abuse; the wielding of power by a few men who are free of the normal legal accountability of most decent societies; the duplicitous propaganda spread by even the women on the island who try to rationalise away the perverse behaviour of even their husbands and sons; and the trials that were frustrated by women and girls often manipulated to retract statements or withdraw from being witnesses.

In Part 2 of the book, the author "steps back" from the island and views 'Pitcairn from a distance'. How did the myth of Pitcairn develop? What role did politics and power play in the events on Pitcairn? And he silence and collusion of women and visitors who worked on the island. The story is heartrending as Marks documents how these little children were abused and raped as young as 3 years old. The men (and women) on Pitcairn Island accepted that 'this is just the way it is' on Pitcairn. While the image of a Christian society, free from crime, was perpetuated by those living on Pitcairn and authorities that interacted with the islanders, men were brazenly forcing young girls into the forests of the island and destroying their innocence and scarring them for life.

For those of us looking from the outside, it is hard to believe that such perverted evil could go on for so long with noone doing anything about it. It is also difficult to believe that denominational leaders could not have known. The Adventist Church has always had a resident pastor and nurse on the island (SPD Staff/ANN 2001). How could they not know?

Kathy Marks documents a number of people who either suspected or knew of the ongoing abuse and the attitudes of the islanders. These individuals never said anything or, if they did, were dismissed by those in authority. It is reassuring that at least one of the people mentioned in the book, a friend of mine and who lived on Pitcairn for some time in a professional role, was one of  only a couple of people who spoke out about what they were observing on Pitcairn.

Pitcairn: Paradise Lost reveals an incredible litany of evil on a little island we thought was paradise. That paradise has been lost as we have realised that it never was. Kathy Marks's book Pitcairn: Paradise Lost lays bare the real hell of that imaginary paradise — at least what we know. Who knows what else will be uncovered in the future (there is emerging evidence of the oppression and abuse of adult women and child-to-child sexual abuse).

Simone Weil has written that '[w]e must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise.' Pitcairn was an imaginary paradise. We must have the courage to confront and acknowledge the real hell of Pitcairn. The 'handiwork of the Almighty'? I don't think so.


Ford, H 2008, Pitcairn Island & Pacific Union College, Pacific Union College, viewed 15 February 2009, <>.

SPD Staff/ANN 2001, Turning Point for Historic Adventist Community on Pitcairn Island, viewed 15 February 2009, <>.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Movie Review: Changeling


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Clint Eastwood has to be one of the best directors in Hollywood and his Changeling confirms his position with one of his best directorial efforts to date — and he's nearly 80 years old! Changeling is one of the best movies of 2009 so far — up there with Doubt. What makes Changeling so fascinating is that it is a true story.

Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother living in 1920s Los Angeles who comes home from work one day to find her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. She anxiously walks the neighbourhood looking for him and, when she cannot find him, rings the police. They tell her that it is not their policy to respond to missing children for 24 hours because most of them return home. But Walter doesn't come home.

After months of extensive searching by the police, Walter is found and returned to his mother. But something is wrong and Christine claims that the boy is not really her son. Thus begins a long, uphill battle with the LAPD who vilify Christine as being delusional and a mother who is unfit.  Christine's long battle to find her son, with help from an ally in Reverend Gustav Briegleb, is heart-rending, confronting, and ultimately inspiring.

Angelina Jolie, who was chosen by Clint Eastwood because her face suited the period, is superb as Christine Collins. This may be her best role ever and we see, once again, that she can truly act. Clint Eastwood approaches the narrative with restrained simplicity. But the story is so engaging and intriguing that nothing more is needed.

Changeling transcends mere narrative as it explores the disempowerment of women at the time, police corruption, the power of labelling someone mentally ill, and the nature of closed systems of belief that have the ability to rationalize all evidence that may question the status quo.

It is this last element that particularly interests me about this film. A closed ideological system is one which, no matter what evidence is presented contrary to what is believed, it can be rationalised away. One famous example of this is Sigmund Freud's notion of resistance during therapy. If he suggested to a patient that they had problems with their father, for instance, and the patient resisted this interpretation, then Freud argued that the fact of resistance proved that the explanation was correct. In a situation like this, it is impossible to prove anything to the contrary.

Many religious systems are the same. Any evidence provided against the beliefs of the system are themselves considered evidence that the person raising them is evil and a fulfillment of "prophecies" that those beliefs would be attacked.

Changeling is not directly concerned with such issues. But the events of this story do provoke such considerations — along with many others. The story is simple but extremely evocative.

Changeling is a must-see movie that will leave you speechless at the way people think and behave. Be warned: it has some very disturbing material. But overall, it is a movie that is very enjoyable to watch. It's a powerful story powerfully told. Don't miss it!


Positive Review
'A disturbing film about grim subject matter, but the overall experience is more exhilarating than saddening. There's just something satisfying about seeing a movie so well made.' - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle

Negative Review
'J. Michael Straczynski's disjointed script manages to ring false at almost every significant turn (Collins' psychiatric-hospital stay has grown into a latter-day version of "The Snake Pit") and Clint Eastwood's ponderous direction -- a disheartening departure from his sure touch in "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "The Bridges of Madison County" -- magnifies the flaws.' - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

Content Advice
Some violent and disturbing content, and language

AUS: MA15+

... more movies to see ...

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
The third in the Underworld vampire/werewolf series. Doesn't equal the first two but is somewhat entertaining. Don't bother unless you have seen the first two and really want to keep in touch with the series.

A superb movie about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the US and who is assassinated. Sean Penn is absolutely incredible as Harvey Milk.

The true story of one of the plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler orchestrated by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise). A riveting thriller even though we know the ending. Tom Cruise is excellent in his role. It is good to know that, even in the darkest hours of earth's history, people were prepared to sacrifice their lives for good.

The Wrestler
An over-rated movie about an ageing wrestler who has nothing to live for but his wrestling. He is given the opportunity to fight a former nemesis. But, following a heart attack, he is told by his doctor not to fight anymore. But he decides to anyway so that he can connect with the only family he has — his fans. Mickey Rourke in his role as the wrestler is the best aspect of the movie.

The Spirit
Another comic superhero adaptation that is almost unbearable to watch. It is boring, lifeless, and I can't understand why great actors like Scarlett Johansson or Samuel Jackson would want to be involved. Give it a miss.

Gran Torino
An entertaining story about Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), an ageing, racist, misogynist ex-Korean soldier, whose wife dies and who has a family of Asian immigrants move in next door. When one of the boys is threatened by a local gang, Walt becomes the neighbourhood protector. Ok movie, but very wooden acting and doesn't live up to the hype.

Revolutionary Road
Sees the reuniting of Kate Winslett and Leonardo diCaprio who play a married couple whose relationship disintegrates as they try to live up to social expectations of the American dream. Interesting and thought-provoking, but I found the first half a bit inauthentic. Worth a look.

The Kite Runner (DVD)
An excellent, inspirational story of a Afghan man who returns to Afghanistan to deal with the ghosts of his past — in particular, his treatment of a friend who has died. Great movie!

Pathology (DVD)
A bizarre horror movie about a new intern pathologist who is drawn into a group of colleagues who try to work out ways of killing people that the others can't detect or work out. Very gory and most definitely not for everyone!

Standard Operating Procedure (DVD)
A compelling documentary about the abuse and torture of suspected terrorists by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison (remember the photos?). A timely reminder of how normal people can find themselves doing unethical things.