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Hashish assassins’ history revised

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Veteran local filmmaker Richard Mordaunt has just returned from war-torn Syria and will present his doco The Secret History of the Assassins at the Byron Film Festival on Sunday March 4. Photo Jeff ‘You Can’t Be Syriass’ Dawson

Luis Feliu

Last week’s targeting and killing of journalists covering the Syrian conflict was a chilling reminder to Byron Shire filmmaker Richard Mordaunt of his luck in filming there ‘just before the whole thing exploded’.

Richard, whose feature documentary The Secret History of the Assassins is being premiered at the Byron Film Festival, had returned to Syria and Iran late in 2010 to ‘bookend’ his personal journey of discovery which began there 52 years earlier.

As fresh-faced 20-year-olds, Richard and his filmmaking colleague Michael Oliver were part of an Oxford University expedition sponsored by the British Museum that set out to explore the Castles of the Assassins in northern Persia.

They were following in the footsteps of the great English traveller Freya Stark and were one of the first western travellers to explore the Valley of the Assassins and the film they made was then shown on David Attenborough’s Travellers Tales in 1961.

Fast forward to November 2010 when the now mature-aged filmmakers decided to reunite and revisit the story, spending six weeks in Syria filming for their current documentary and, just before Christmas last year, were able to film the end of their fascinating story in Iran.

In their latest film, they explore the ‘origins and history of our word assassin’. The film is also a journey of discovery inside the Islamic world both in northern Iran and modern-day Syria.

‘In a certain sort of way, it’s a coming-of-age story; we had no idea then, we were just kids. We climbed 12,000-foot mountains to get to this valley and found things that hadn’t been discovered since the Mongols destroyed the castles in 1256,’ Richard told Echonetdaily.

‘At the time, we had two doctors, both Iranian, who spoke Farsi (Persian), which meant we had no problems with the locals, but we had to have permits to go into prohibited areas. There were no sealed roads and we used donkeys and mules to carry all our stuff up the mountains, and we had only a small 16mm camera. The footage from that we restored for this new film.’

The new film, almost an hour long, is unusual in that it combines footage from both tours 50 years apart.

‘But the important thing about this more recent one is that it’s also a journey about Islam. Islam has been so denigrated by the West, which is racist to the core against it, and that’s the reason this film will be shown around the world. We were so lucky to film there before the uprisings tore through the Middle-East.

‘Syria was very peaceful then. There was no sign of violence before the uprising; it’s a beautiful place, with wonderful people. It’s very sad to see what’s happening there.’

Their first film revealed a chapter of Middle-Eastern history that had remained largely hidden for 900 years, but their new one developed into a very personal journey for the two inside the Islamic world, exploring the Assassin legends and present-day Islam.

The original film, according to Richard, investigates the Ismaili Assassin story trying to find out who were the original Ismailis and ‘how did they get their terrible reputation for assassination?’

‘It was the Syrian Assassin leader, Sinan, known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”, who gave his followers hashish, before sending them out to assassinate his enemies. Hence the name hashishin, which means users of hashish and hashashin was mispronounced “assassin” by the Crusaders.

‘I guess you could say they were the first suicide bombers,’ he said this week.

Richard’s latest film, is about the 40th film he’s made, which includes Battle for Byron with David Bradbury and The Dolphin People, winner of Best Marine Documentary at the Byron Bay Film Festival in 2006.

He also made around a dozen films in the UK in the heady days of the swinging 60s and the 70s till he moved to Australia, settling in Wilsons Creek in Byron Shire in 1980. These films, which he terms ‘England’s New Cinema’ include one on the Rolling Stones called Voices, with legendary film director Jean-Luc Godard. He also produced films with music legends Eric Burdon from the Animals and the late great Otis Redding.

‘I also did the first pop music clips with the first silent lightweight camera, which were a very important change in the industry’.

It’s also appropriate, if not ironic, that another one of Richard’s films is being screened at this week’s Byron Film Festival, given he was one of the founders of probably the first film festival in the region in the early 1980s.

‘We turned the Mullumbimby Civic Hall into a cinema using a 35mm projector. Nola McMahon ran the Civic Hall at the time and asked us if we could turn this into a cinema. We said “of course we can” and off we went. It was after this that David Bradbury and I made Battle for Byron and it reminded me just how wonderful it was to make films again and sucked me back in again.

‘I absolutely love filming; watching what you have filmed is a most exciting thing – you always look forward to seeing “what did you get?” or “what have you captured”.

‘I’ve just sent this latest film to the BBC and I’ll be working with them to find an acceptable storyline for the UK. I’m also waiting for feedback from Channel 4 and the History Channel and entered in the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.’

The Secret History of the Assassins screens at Byron Bay Community Centre Sunday 4 March at 4pm as part of Byron Bay Film Festival.

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