Anatomy of a Murder – Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy
Author: Shane O’Sullivan
Format: Video essay
Duration: 23’ 15”
Published: April 2018
The following submission is a video essay that combines archival material, interview, witness statements and parole hearing recordings relating to the case of Sirhan Sirhan, the person found guilty of assassinating Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. While it is a compelling work, there are divergent views in the peer reviews (below) particularly with regard to its ambiguous position both as an academic research film and polemical campaign video. We therefore publish this partly because of its strengths but also to highlight problems and questions it might raise relating to the place of polemical campaign videos in the context of academic practice as research.
As stated below, I would look for evidence of originality, significance, rigour and “contribution to new knowledge and understanding” in my video essay and supporting statement.
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.
The film is not intended as a comprehensive study of Sirhan’s case. The intention is to provide the viewer with enough context to cast doubt on his conviction while exploring two interrelated research questions around Sirhan’s memory of the event and its legal implications at his parole hearings:
How does the notion that the Manchurian Candidate theory and an amnesiac assassin are the stuff of movie fiction constrain the legal and popular acceptance of such evidence in Sirhan’s case?
And what are the implications of this in a real parole hearing, as opposed to the fictionalized parole hearings seen in films like The Shawshank Redemption?
The film was made to enhance popular and media understanding of Sirhan’s case in the weeks before his 2016 parole hearing. It is not a traditional campaign or activist film and uses the mixed modes of film clips, clips from conventional documentaries and clips from Sirhan’s parole hearing to meditate on these research questions in the form of an essay film without the use of voiceover.
An essay film allows the viewer to experience the interplay between fact and fiction – secret history and film history – and how these different forms frame the evidence in Sirhan’s case in the popular imagination. To what extent is our reading of a crime framed by the genre expectations conditioned by cinema, with their implicit distortions of fact and reality?
I recognize that, for some, the extended Shawshank Redemption section in the final third of the film could be separated from what’s gone before and perhaps stand on its own. But, for me, it is essential to the contemporary relevance and power of the film – Sirhan’s amnesia for the murder and perceived lack of remorse is the central issue discussed at every one of Sirhan’s parole hearings and the key obstacle to his release. Psychiatrists support his claim of amnesia but echoes of his “outlandish” claims in popular culture and cinema devalue its status as evidence
The film expresses a highly subjective point of view of Sirhan’s case developed over many years of careful study across my extensive body of work on this subject. I don’t feel presenting Sirhan’s legal case cheapens my argument, it states his problem in relation to my research questions. My aim was to apply an academic line of enquiry to a video essay made for a general audience, building on conclusions set out in my earlier book and film without rehashing them in detail. While I take a strongly-authored position in my conclusion, this is evidenced in my body of work and argued in the Who What Why (O’Sullivan, 2016b) series of articles which accompanied the film.
What work already exists in the relevant fields of practice?
How do you expect to be able to advance on work that already exists?
The video essay begins with Anatomy of a Murder (1959), regarded by lawyers as one of the best trial movies ever made (Brust, 2008: 41). Ben Gazzara’s amnesia for his crime mirrors Sirhan’s defense of diminished capacity – Sirhan’s “irresistible impulse” triggered by post-hypnotic suggestion.
John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946) introduces post-war documentary footage of servicemen overcoming trauma-induced amnesia through hypnosis. The threat posed by Communist brainwashing techniques used on U.S. prisoners of war returning from Korea led to the CIA mind control experiments that followed. And, as Marcus notes, the brainwashing panic of the fifties created “a state of mind” that The Manchurian Candidate “might be part of the inexplicable cycle of assassinations that followed” (2002: 61).
In Jeon’s Freudian reading of Oldboy’s conclusion, O Dae-su undergoes a series of failed “traumatic reenactments” in search of his “unrecoverable past”, a process Sirhan continues to undergo in prison with Dr. Brown:
The past quite literally walks away and dies, leaving a residual self with literally no knowledge of its painful secrets (2009: 717).
My reading of Oldboy’s finale is closer to the “altered personality state” noted in Sirhan by Dr. Brown (2016: 3) and in other brainwashing cases – a manufactured split personality, with the “monster” sealed unwittingly inside the victim and finally purged. While “Dae-su seeks to forget so that he can live unburdened by trauma” (2009: 17), every five years, the parole board demands that Sirhan recall and atone for his crime over and over again.
There is very little critical analysis of the three parole scenes that frame The Shawshank Redemption (1994), the top-rated movie of all time on IMDB. As Rafter notes, the film is “deliberately nostalgic” for the escapist fantasies of “prison film traditions” (2000: 135):
Presenting tales in which justice is miraculously restored after long periods of harsh oppression…a world where long-suffering virtue is rewarded…good triumphs over evil and the moral order is restored (2000: 117, 120).
Mark Kermode describes the third and final parole scene as the pivotal “moment of ‘redemption’ promised in the title…(2003: 80).” Asked once more if he feels he’s been rehabilitated:
With the resigned honesty of a guilty man finally facing up to his own damnation…Red unexpectedly drops the ‘god’s honest truth’ patter of yore [and dismisses rehabilitation] as a politician’s word…a bullshit word…Red seems finally to accept his own unassailable guilt, realizing at last that only grace, rather than performance, can set him free (2003: 82).
While Sirhan has bemoaned the performative nature of expressing remorse, the parole system does not work on grace alone, and as Browning notes:
The granting of Red’s parole is as random and absurdly Kafkaesque in its clemency as in its severity. Kermode reads Red’s attitude as representing the atonement of a guilty man and it is tempting to believe that Red’s more honest, direct answers and his ultimate attitude (symbolized by his ‘I don’t give a shit’) win over the board, but this is really wishful thinking (2009: 157).
Intercutting this scene with the harsh reality of Sirhan’s 2011 parole hearing reveals both the film and Kermode’s reading of it as escapist fantasy. Red’s provocative speech would be interpreted by the parole commissioners in Sirhan’s case as immature and argumentative and his lack of respect for authority would ensure he remained in prison.
When I applied to film Sirhan’s recent parole hearing, I was informed that the video and audio recording of proceedings are now banned in California. As recorded interviews with inmates are also banned, Sirhan’s voice has been censored from the debate around his case. After nearly forty-eight years in prison, he was again denied parole and if the current ban stays in place, we will never see or hear from him again.
Video essay, film studies, documentary production, political history
Juxtaposing archive footage of Sirhan with films echoing his case defamiliarizes his story and keeps it alive in the popular imagination, offering a way in for a younger audience susceptible to true crime series like The Jinx (2015) and Making a Murderer (2015). It also corrects the “claims to authenticity” and myths about the justice system portrayed in films like The Shawshank Redemption, in a country boasting “one of the highest incarceration rates in the world” (Rafter, 2000: 127, 137).
How was the work funded?
The work was independently funded.
Where has the work been shown? Was this in competition?
It was published on Vimeo on the day of Sirhan Sirhan’s 2016 parole hearing and embedded on the project website at www.sirhanbsirhan.com
Has it been recognised through curatorial selection, distribution, festival exhibition, prizes or awards? Are there any reviews?
I have not submitted it to any festivals
What other dissemination has there been (e.g. conference presentations, website documentation, etc.)?
It was shortlisted for the 2016 AHRC Film Awards in the Best Research Film of the Year category
This video essay was made as part of a short online campaign to publicize Sirhan’s case before his parole hearing in February 2016. The research project also included a blog on the project website at www.sirhanbsirhan.com; a series of articles for US news site Who What Why (O’Sullivan, 2016b), one of which had over 3,000 shares on Facebook: http://whowhatwhy.org/author/shane-osullivan/; the publication of an edited collection of jail logs from Sirhan’s first year in custody (O’Sullivan, 2016c); and the online publication of the Sirhan Sirhan Parole Hearing Transcripts (2016) since 1985.
These articles and my earlier book on the case, Who Killed Bobby? were later cited in the Washington Post’s coverage of the parole hearing. I released this film on Vimeo on the morning of Sirhan’s parole hearing and it was subsequently shortlisted for the 2016 AHRC Film Awards in the Best Research Film of the Year category. The judges said it was ‘a fascinating glimpse of a historically vital moment’ and called it ‘very impressive’. The film will receive renewed exposure this year as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination in June 2018. My book has been reissued in paperback by Skyhorse Publishing (New York) and I will speak about Sirhan’s case at the 17th Annual Forensic Science and Law Symposium at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh in May.
This practice research benefits the general public’s understanding of the writing of political memory in fiction and non-fiction film. It highlights the interplay between fact and fiction – and historical drama and documentary forms – and how they frame the evidence in a case like Sirhan’s in the popular imagination.
Brown, D. (2016) Declaration to Board of Parole Hearings, available at: http://sirhanbsirhan.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Brown-2016-declaration.pdf
Browning, M. (2009) Stephen King on the Big Screen, Bristol: Intellect Books Ltd
Brust, R. (2008) ‘The 25 Greatest Legal Movies’, ABA Journal, August 2008, pp. 38-47
Chanan, M. (2007) The Politics of Documentary, London: BFI
Corrigan, T. (2011) The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Jeon, J.J. (2009) ‘Residual Selves: Trauma and Forgetting in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy’, positions 17:3, pp. 713-740
Kermode, M. (2003) The Shawshank Redemption, London: BFI Classics
Marcus, G. (2002) The Manchurian Candidate, London: BFI Classics
O’Sullivan, S. (2013) Enemies of the State: Framing Political Subversives in Documentary Film, PhD thesis, available at: http://roehampton.openrepository.com/roehampton/handle/10142/300956
O’Sullivan, S. (2016a) ‘Enemy of the State: Framing the Political Assassin’, in de Valk, M., (ed.) Screening The Tortured Body: The Cinema as Scaffold, London: Palgrave
O’Sullivan, S. (2016b) Sirhan parole hearing coverage, available at: http://whowhatwhy.org/author/shane-osullivan/
O’Sullivan, S. (2016c) ‘In jail with Sirhan Sirhan’ (ed.) London: Kindle ebook
Rafter, N.H. (2000) Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, New York: Oxford University Press
Sirhan Sirhan blog (2016), available at: www.sirhanbsirhan.com
Sirhan Sirhan Parole Hearing Transcripts (2016), available at: https://www.maryferrell.org/pages/Featured_Sirhan_Parole_Hearing_Transcripts.html
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This essay film is original in juxtaposing archive footage from the assassination of Robert Kennedy, fiction films on murder-trials, non-fiction films about trauma experienced by soldiers, and more contemporary documentary interviews about the guilt and continued imprisonment of the person convicted of his murder, Sirhan Sirhan. It investigates the condition(s) of traumatic, psychotic and hynotic behaviours as it questions both the original conviction and the continuing denial of parole to Sirhan Sirhan, who has now spent over 45 years in prison.
There appears to be original footage that has not been widely made available, such as Sirhan’s breaking down when considering ‘the Middle East’. The defence lawyer’s interview offers a consistent thread to the film’s negotation of, sometimes, disparate arguments and themes that otherwise work well by associative editing, thanks to the fiction/non-fiction links.
The editing between different fiction films provides a pace and intensity to the film essay that would otherwise feel flat, but, more importantly, raises questions about believeability, authenticity, conspiracy, and manipulation in both the ‘real’ and ‘filmic’ worlds. I wonder if more footage of Sirhan Sirhan at this parole meetings, i.e. less edited, is available and useable, since a study of his face, expression, posture, etc. remains intriguing, especially given his isolation and, now, likelihood of never being seen by the public again. This is my curiosity and not a request for change in the film.
An important aspect of the film’s currency is its parallels to popular television series on murder trials, especially commissioned by online broadcasters like Netflix, with similar raising of concerns about fairness and justice in contemporary judicial processes.
It is clear that the film is held in high regard, deservedly so, with its nomination for an AHRC Best Research Film of the Year award in 2016.
the quality of the Statement (overall organisation of the argument, theoretical and artistic context etc);
The statement reads well and responds succinctly to the questions, if at times in a limited way (see below on Impact). I wonder if a little more could be written on the choice of essay film as a preferred methodology. The theoretical framing is strong, with relevant references.
its writing and presentation (is it as clear as it needs to be?) The writing is clear and succinct.
suggested corrections (typos, small unclarities, etc).
1. To briefly elaborate on why the essay film is chosen as a format, with some reference to editing decisions overall.
2. The Impact section be developed, since the film’s subject is a topic of international significance, with more evidence of impact than is currently presented. An expansion of this section will be a good rehearsal for the rigorous demands of REF and Research Councils who increasingly demand a high standard of the evidence of impact.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and/or statement
This is a very well-crafted and highly engaging documentary/video essay about Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Robert Kennedy, featuring news footage and interviews juxtaposed with clips taken from thematically related fiction films.
The video essay works well as an introduction to the story of the assassination, and clearly presents unanswered questions hanging over Sirhan’s actions. However, I don’t see evidence of significant original research in it, or of a coherent practice-based research methodology. The video aligns itself with the belief that Sirhan should no longer be in prison and with the campaign for his release, and reports on relatively recent evidence gathered by Sirhan’s current lawyer suggesting that he was hypnotized when he committed the act. However, it doesn’t seem to add new research to extant discourse on this issue (including that of the author’s own previous work in this field) beyond its engaging audio-visual presentation of particular arguments that have recently been raised regarding Sirhan’s mental state.
The Statement provides useful context for viewing the article (e.g. that it is a remix based on the film-maker’s previous work), but does not help anchor it in an academic context. For example, it does not provide any clear research questions, but instead uses the ‘Research Questions’ section to provide an outline of the film. Nor does it explain the video’s methodology beyond a few vague and slightly over-determined assertions such as: ‘Intercutting this scene [from the Shawshank Redemption] with the harsh reality of Sirhan’s 2011 parole hearing reveals both the film and [Mark] Kermode’s reading of it as escapist fantasy.’ Though phrased as an observation, this is in fact an assertion about how the video functions – one that (in my view) places too great faith in the power of editing to generate nuanced meaning. The video’s juxtaposition of movie and document kept me interested, but I don’t see how it shows Shawshank to be an escapist fantasy, nor do I see what it adds to the images of Sirhan’s parole hearing.
Quite apart from the video’s slightly uncomfortable relation to research, I also don’t quite understand its non-academic purpose. As a conventional documentary, it lacks the duration (and perhaps also the reflexivity) to allow the viewer to develop a nuanced view of the issue. Yet as an activist video, it lacks urgency. Despite the text-based implication at the end that Sirhan should be freed, I don’t get a clear sense of this argument having been made in the body of the video itself. It certainly doesn’t make me burn with outrage at the injustice of Sirhan’s incarceration.
Ultimately this feels like a rather confused piece of work, suspended somewhere between conventional documentary, practice-based research, activist film-making, and experimental video, but not quite working within the parameters of any of these fields. For this reason, I find it difficult to suggest how it could be reworked for resubmission; its up to the film-maker himself to ask and answer the question of precisely what the purpose of this work is.
Review 3: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and/or statement
This is a compelling video essay that transposes film footage with archival material, witness statements, interviews after-the-fact, and parole hearing recordings relating to the case of Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. Sirhan’s defence has since the crime itself been that he was under hypnosis, and has no memory of his crime.
While the film’s style does not feel particularly original, it is impactful and very watchable. It does attempt to open up a debate about the legal ramifications – and indeed the epistemological basis of – truth-telling, personal responsibility and diminished capacity. For the most part, it uses clever, well-constructed parallels between recorded and fictionalised crimes, trials and parole hearings based around similar incidents and claims.
Film footage includes that of Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959), The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankhenheimer, 1962), The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) and Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003). There is also footage used from the theatrical trailer for Anatomy of a Murder, as well as from Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946), a seminal record of WWII soldiers and early post-war treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The video is most absorbing in its juxtaposition of the depiction of post-hypnotic suggestion in film and its analogue in real-life situations, most notably in this famous murder, even if further parallels with its use in Oldboy are not as directly applicable. The juxtaposition of Sirhan’s parole hearing and those of convicted murder Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption are again well constructed but – perhaps because of how they tie into the film’s political ambitions – feel superfluous to the central argument about the existence and treatment of diminished capacity.
The film’s own attempt to posit such a dyad, between Sirhan’s defence and a mythologised (and almost paranoiac) use of hypnotic suggestibility in a romanticised and fictionalised form, is where it is least persuasive, almost contradicting its own thesis in defending Sirhan’s crimes on a similarly esoteric and subjective construction (namely that he was under the kind of hypnosis exemplified by films such as The Manchurian Candidate). This, along with the inclusion of interview statements from his defence lawyers and links to a campaign to free Sirhan, create a clash of styles by turning the video into something of a polemic, further cheapening the otherwise objective arguments laid out in the statement.
The statement, in turn, does not support the video in a way that is entirely coherent or persuasive. While the theoretical and artistic contexts are sound, there is superfluous information that clouds the central argument, particularly with the introduction of parole hearings both real and imagined. Its strength lies in how the work fits into the contributor’s research context, but this is undermined by its use of seemingly disconnected sources.
Assuming that the video cannot be re-edited to streamline its central argument, I would suggest the following corrections:
That the theoretical and artistic context of the statement be revised to focus on its central tenet, namely the relevance of post-hypnotic suggestibility, its legal basis, and its depiction in mainstream cinema
That the perspective be clarified, namely whether or not the contributor is attempting to provoke discourse about hypnotic suggestibility or to provide a strong argument for the release of Sirhan
That the use of the parole argument (and commensurate footage) be removed or its prominence diminished
That the use of US/UK English is standardised, and some typos and other errors be repaired