At its most powerful, film can change the way we think, feel and act. It can make us reflect on our own life, or it can provide a new lens through which we view the world. The documentary seems particularly well suited to such contemplativeness, introducing issues or lines of thought that we were previously unaware of, or alternative perspectives on those that we already knew. At the core of the documentary, however, is a paradox: film is a fundamentally creative process – an art form – and documentary-makers shape narratives with the same underlying predispositions as directors of fiction. This is not to say that they aim to manipulate the truth (though they often do), but rather to emphasise that truth itself is elusive and often unattainable. There is rarely a single ‘truth’ or narrative; there are many sides to the same story, and sometimes one person’s outlook is no more or less ‘true’ than any other. Even straightforward or mundane facts are unavoidably distorted by memories and subjectivity.
In an interview with ‘Slate‘ about the 2005 biographical film Capote (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor), Philip Seymour Hoffman commented that, “Films are always a fiction, not documentary. Even a documentary is a kind of fiction. So, ultimately you have to think about the story you’re telling.” It is this self-conscious awareness of constructing a narrative that is central to two compelling new documentaries, Stories We Tell (Phoenix, from Fri 12th) and The Act of Killing (Phoenix, from Sat 13th). Rather than shying away from the ‘flaws’ and potential biases of the documentary form, the two films embrace them, blurring the line between fact and fiction in an inventive and provocative manner.
Stories We Tell essentially explores Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s family history, but the director is less interested in her distant ancestry or lineage than the more immediate past. Polley’s father Michael was a British actor, and her mother Diane was an aspiring actress who died of cancer when Polley was only eleven. While growing up, Polley discovered that she was the product of an extramarital affair between her mother and film producer Harry Gulkin, though the early death of her mother left many questions unanswered. Stories We Tell investigates the mystery of the affair, featuring home videos and interviews with Polley’s family members, friends, and her biological father. In doing so the documentary reflects on more general issues about storytelling, truth, and family.
Long-term relationships and adultery had already established themselves as important themes in Sarah Polley’s directorial work. In Polley’s beautifully mature debut Away From Her  an elderly man struggles as his wife, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, falls in love with another man while staying in a nursing home. The husband, isolated and dejected, wonders if her dementia is an act punishing him for his past affair with a student as a university professor. In her follow-up film Take This Waltz  a young married woman fantasises about committing infidelity with a neighbour, torn between the comfortable relationship she has with her husband and her desire for something more passionate. Polley tackles the same themes very differently in the two films, and by foregrounding the nuances of human emotion and the complexities of relationships she invokes empathy in some way for all of the characters involved. Her work on Away From Her and Take This Waltz seems to have directly influenced her approach to her mother’s affair in Stories We Tell, where she aims to have everybody’s side of the story to be heard, offering different perspectives on the same events.
The Act of Killing is as dark as the title suggests, examining the national legacy of the failed coup of the 30 September Movement in Indonesia in 1965. In the year following the coup, more than a million communists, Chinese ethnics and intellectuals were murdered (the exact figure is still not known but may be far greater), yet the perpetrators of the genocide have escaped prosecution. More harrowingly still, they are now celebrated as national heroes for their ‘services to the country’. Director Joshua Oppenheimer initially planned to interview the survivors, but found his attempts to film with them repeatedly thwarted by the oppressive Indonesian authorities. He was advised to seek out (now elderly) gangsters from the former death squads, finding that they were not only unrepentant of their crimes, but also proud and boastful of them. Rather than opting for a conventional interview approach, Oppenheimer gave the perpetrators the chance to re-enact their killings on film in the style of their favourite Hollywood genres, an opportunity many enthusiastically took up. Through the surreal blend of fact and fiction that results, Oppenheimer allows us insight into the minds of mass-murderers, while prompting the killers themselves to reflect on their actions.
Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing can both be seen to offer a kind of metapoetic rumination on the documentary genre, as they are actively concerned with the process of their own creation. In Stories We Tell, archive footage and stills are complemented by dramatic reconstructions using actors, filmed on Super 8 to give an ‘authentic’ home movie feel. The narration is read by – and written by – Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, but within the film itself we see her influencing this narration (at one point, for example, asking him to repeat a line with different emphases). Sarah Polley is the film’s principle storyteller in this sense: the filmmaking techniques that she employs were clearly decided upon with a certain, personal vision in mind. That she makes these processes apparent to the audience, however, only serves to strengthen the film’s message of the interpretative nature of storytelling and truth.
The Act of Killing does not use standard documentary techniques such as archive footage or voiceovers, and its dramatic re-enactments serve a very different purpose to those of Stories We Tell. In Polley’s film, the acted sections generally accompany the interviews and narratives, whereas in Oppenheimer’s film they form the very core of the documentary. Oppenheimer is strongly influenced here by the cinema vérité of Jean Rouch (as the director has himself claimed in an interview with ‘Sight & Sound’ magazine): giving subjects the ability to be central to the documentary’s filming process can often be far more enlightening than relying on conventional (yet still intrinsically artificial) techniques such as interviews. The re-enactments in The Act of Killing are clearly not historically accurate, but that isn’t their function; they provide an opportunity for the elderly gangsters to open up about their past, and it is telling that Oppenheimer’s vérité-esque approach proved engaging and emotionally affecting for his subjects in a manner that standard approaches did not.
Inextricable from Oppenheimer’s approach in The Act of Killing (and indeed, documentaries in general) is the element of performance, when those being filmed are aware that they are being captured on camera. Upon watching film footage, Anwar Congo – the main subject of the film – views himself critically but on a superficial level, disapproving of his hair colour rather than his actions. This physical self-consciousness is indicative of Anwar’s fascination with Hollywood cinema, a recurring theme that provides some of the most harrowing moments in the documentary. At one point, Anwar demonstrates how he used to dance across the street, from watching Elvis musicals at the cinema straight to the office where he committed most of his murders. Like Reservoir Dogs’ subversive use of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’, this has the unsettling effect of juxtaposing trivial popular culture with extreme violence. Anwar is clearly excited to be on film, relishing the chance for gory makeup, props and pyrotechnics, and at one point he even summons his grandchildren to watch him get ‘tortured’. The very film genres that were used here to re-enact killings offered initial influence to the gangsters, and The Act of Killing thus highlights the chilling impact that the film industry can have.
Oppenheimer suggests that The Act of Killing’s dramatic re-enactments functioned as a “cinematic-psychic scar tissue” for Anwar, as he tried to replace the horrors of his real past with fiction. At one point in the documentary Anwar wretches violently, as if trying to exorcise himself, but only to discover, in Oppenheimer’s words, “that he is the ghost.” In another scene, a musical is staged, complete with women dancing in front of a waterfall, in which communists thank their killers for enabling them to enter heaven. Anwar attempts to create an alternative narrative for himself, one rooted in escapism and self-assurance, in order to replace the far less savoury truth.
If Polley attempts to create an alternative narrative as Anwar does, it is one not of escapism but inclusiveness, one that incorporates the narratives of all those involved (ideally without giving any singular strand precedence). For Polley, the factual story of her mother’s affair was of less interest than the slightly different perspectives that people gave when discussing it. The film by no means offers an objective account of what happened, but a reflection of the difficulty that chasing such objectivity brings. The exact details of an individual’s story are in many ways less important than the process of creating and retelling that story, and Polley has admitted a fascination for the human need to “create a narrative arc out of [the] messy events in our lives.”
Stories We Tell opens with a highly appropriate quotation from author Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace (which, notably, Polley is planning to adapt into a feature film); “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” This is the common message of The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell: the stories that we create can never be completely identical to the events they recount or to the narratives of others. Truth can be elusive, memory an illusion. Fact and fiction can seem to be one and the same.
For up-to-date listings and to book tickets please follow these links: Phoenix Picturehouse; Ultimate Picture Palace; Odeon George St; Odeon Magdalen St; Malmaison Rooftop Cinema. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook