Annie Goldson’s An Island Calling is a sobering documentary looking at the murder of John Scott and Greg Scrivener in Suva in 2001. Drawing in complex issues such as postcolonial identity, evangelicism, and ethnic conflicts, it’s one of the more thought-provoking documentaries at this year’s World Cinema Showcase. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM had a chat with Goldson about the film.

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There is an irony in Auckland filmmaker Annie Goldson’s latest documentary, An Island Calling, which looks at the murder of John Scott and Greg Scrivener at the hands of Apete Kaisau in Suva in 2001. Scott’s great-grandfather was one of the missionaries who brought The Bible to Fiji in the 19th Century. That same Bible was used as a justification by Kaisau to murder Scott and Scrivener. In the process of telling this tale, Goldson draws in issues such as history, colonisation, evangelical Christianity, homosexuality, turning what could have been seen as a simple murder into something much more complex and morally ambiguous.

Goldson admits “I’d always been a bit of a Pacific watcher. Given we live here in New Zealand I’ve always been interested in the politics of the region. Fiji is one of the hotspots of the Pacific.” She became aware of John Scott during the 2000 coup, when he risked his life to deliver aid to the hostages (which included the Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry) held by the coup leaders. John Scott was viewed by many in Fiji as an angel, courageous in his actions. “A year later I heard that John and his partner had been murdered. And I began to speculate why this might have happened.” Goldson says that her first impression was that “it was political, something to do with the 2000 coup.” However, it was when John Scott’s brother, Owen, published a book Deep Beyond the Reef “recalling the life of his family and also the way he responded to John’s death” that the making of the documentary began in earnest.

And it was soon revealed that the murders were a lot murkier and complex than a “simple” political assassination. “I’m always drawn to incidents that if unpacked, reveal a lot about a moment and a culture, and I felt this was one of them.” Goldson has been making documentaries and experimental fims for twenty years, including the 1999 documentary Punitive Damage on the killing in East Timor of Kamal Bamadhaj, and Georgie Girl, a documentary on MP Georgina Beyer. In this case, Goldson says she “was pretty intrigued by the Scott family. They were not just a powerful family,they helped forge the direction of Fiji.” For example whereas one great-grandfather helped introduce The Bible to Fiji, the other great-grandfather helped craft the cession document that gave Fiji to Queen Victoria, hence laying the groundwork for indenture and colonisation.

Fiji’s complex history which involved the bringing of migrant workers from India to work the plantations as indentured servants led to racial tensions that were used to justify a number of coups, starting in 1987. Goldson says she was “surprised that so few New Zealanders knew why Fiji had a large Indian population. Such historical and political context needed to be included in the film”. The coups and the anti-Indian feeling had been accompanied by a rise in evangelical Christianity, and a concomitant rise in homophobia – and made Scott and Scrivener, and indeed the entire gay population, vulnerable.

“I’m always drawn to incidents that if unpacked, reveal a lot about a moment and a culture, and I felt this was one of them.”

As the centre of her documentary, Goldson uses Owen Scott, who journeys back to Fiji, the country where he grew up. Now four generations of his family lie buried there. “One of the key influences was Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary on his father Louis Kahn, My Architect.” And while Goldson admits that she thinks Owen Scott likes the film, she believes filmmakers need to retain editorial control over their films. “I’m always prepared to listen and negotiate if something in a film upsets my subjects. But I always make a rule of maintaining editorial control. Owen and I ended up talking a number of things through But I think he trusted me enough to remain sensitive – that’s the role you have to talk as a documentary maker.”

There’s a strong narrative thread in the film, but Goldson uses other interview subjects and archival footage (including a chilling press conference by the Commissioner of Police investigating the murders) too. Interview subjects include members of the LGBT community in Fiji, political commentators, and Kaisau’s family. The incident was very hard on the Kaisau family as well as the Scott’s and the Scriveners. Goldson believes the film gave them one of their few chances to talk things through. “It was pretty delicate but I also needed to get close to the killer’s family. They’ve got a son to hug still but in some ways they also lost a son – one who was a promising rugby player – a great source of pride and even wealth in Fiji. There was also the difficulty of dealing with the fact that Apete Kaisau had been, at least at one stage, in a sexual relationship with John and Greg. Certainly there were many issues of risk and ethics to address.”

As a result, this was a demanding film to make for Goldson although in some ways, she says, “they all are”. But she admits that it was “emotional and exhausting dealing sensitively with the families but also pursuing what one thinks needs inclusion in such a film.” There was also the matter of more political upheaval during the filmmaking process. “Very soon after we started shooting, there was another coup and everyone was pretty tense. What we were doing wasn’t seen as politically threatening, but there were some fairly gung-ho soldiers so we had to be reasonably careful of.” Given the instability that has continued in Fiji, Goldson admits that the country is unlikely to become socially more liberal. “Political instability often nurtures extreme religious position and coups do make it seem more likely that violence will be seen as a solution.”

An Island Calling is ultimately a sobering piece of filmmaking, and novelistic in its implications and subtext. Through the brutal killings of two white men, the film highlights the difficulties that postcolonial countries dealing with the complexities and fallout of their histories. And with a sad irony, it also emphasises just how much of an impact the past can have on the events of the present.