Sarah Polley, 108 mins, 12A

Jonathan Romney on Stories We Tell: Just look into my camera and tell the whole truth

The act of remembering is revealed as a bizarre and brutal process in two very different documentaries

Once, in some mythical distant past, it may have been a simple matter to say what documentaries were, and what they were for: records of reality, supposedly, placing unvarnished truth on screen for all to see. Hence the term cinéma vérité. But vérité in film has been a debatable commodity ever since the Lumière brothers’ first efforts.

Today, film-makers fall over themselves to highlight the question of truth and lies by playing with our expectations of “the real story” – recently, for example, in both Catfish and The Imposter, liars are portrayed spinning unreliable narratives to test the viewer’s credulity.

A while ago, I suggested on these pages that this fabulist trend had started to run itself dry. But two remarkable documentaries released this week offer new angles on the  self-conscious approach. They too use overt storytelling and re-enactment to uncover hitherto concealed truths, but in the context of a challenging process of investigation and disclosure.

One story is public, the other private. The private one belongs to Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress turned writer-director. Stories We Tell investigates the relationship of her late mother Diane and father Michael, both actors. The film is built around interviews with family members, Michael’s own memoir of his marriage (which he’s seen reading aloud in a sound studio) and home-movie footage of the couple up to the late 1970s, when their relationship was in crisis. I won’t reveal too much, but the film investigates rumours that circulated when Sarah was young, and that prove to be true – though not quite as people believed.

Polley’s sleuthing does indeed reach a surprise outcome, yet that’s not the film’s major revelation. What emerges most strongly is an imaginative reconstruction of the character of Diane, a hugely charismatic woman whose complex nature was seemingly too much to handle, both for her husband and for Canadian society in her lifetime. The film is in part a feminist tribute to the mother that Polley knew only too briefly.

That, along with the chance Polley offers Michael to review his past, makes Stories We Tell a subtle and complex gesture, rather than simply an account. Some may feel that the film’s credibility is compromised by Polley’s recourse to elaborate fakery. But as a very personal investigation, Stories We Tell shows that documentary can also be a process of therapy, and arguably of cure.

Similarly, the extraordinary The Act of Killing might be described as a work of social healing, perhaps of exorcism. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film – which lists Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as executive producers – is about the death squads that operated in Indonesia in the 1960s, slaughtering Chinese and suspected Communists with absolute impunity. Oppenheimer shows the killers – paramilitaries and hired gangsters – as they coolly strut around boasting of their feats and, indeed, being publicly glorified for them.

Instead of cinematically prosecuting these loathsome thugs in any obvious way, Oppenheimer invites them to make a film in which they re-enact killings, in whatever manner they choose. They accept his invitation, not in order to be understood or forgiven but apparently to show the world how merciless they were.

These self-aggrandising, self-styled “free men” – notably the soft-spoken Anwar Congo and his sidekick Herman Koto – depict their crimes in a bizarre way, staging lurid moments of film noir, Western, nightmare horror and even musicals. The latter attain a repellent degree of kitsch, with swaying chorus girls, “Born Free” as a backing track and the obese Koto sporting one of the grotesque drag outfits he favours.

The film is hair-raising, deeply revealing and more than a little contentious: you could argue that, despite their noble intentions, Oppenheimer and his co-directors have made themselves unacceptably complicit with Congo and co. But the outcome is surely cathartic, not for the killers so much as (one hopes) for Indonesian society and the families of the unavenged victims.

In the final sequence, Congo, calmly revisiting a murder site, starts retching uncontrollably – as if his body can’t help expressing the truth that his words will not. The Act of Killing is a hugely challenging act of investigation, and one of the bravest, most disturbing films you’ll see for a long time – although it seems almost incomplete without an accompanying seminar on political reconciliation and documentary ethics. 

ALSO SHOWING

Stand Up Guys (95 mins, 15)

Al Pacino and Christopher Walken play two former gangsters who hang out together when Pacino is released from prison after a 28-year stretch. This laid-back buddy comedy assumes that we’ll be so pleased to watch these accomplished veterans trading better-than-average one-liners that we’ll be prepared to forgive the scrappy plotting and wayward tone.

Despicable Me 2 (98 mins, U)

In this perfunctory cartoon sequel, a Bond villain turned suburban dad (voiced by Steve Carell) is hired by the Secret Service to help catch another criminal mastermind ... but then he spends most of the film stuck in a shopping mall.

Hummingbird (100 mins, 15)

Hummingbird tries to be both an earnest redemption drama about a homeless Afghan War veteran, and a wisecracking, limb-snapping vehicle for Jason Statham. Whichever it is, it’s very silly indeed.

Renoir (111 mins, 12A)

In 1915, the elderly painter and his director-to-be son are both smitten by the same curvaceous model (Christa Teret, above). This sun-dappled period drama is a celebration of the Riviera countryside and naked female flesh – but it isn’t much else.

Night of Silence (91 mins, PG)

In a Turkish village, a paunchy ex-con and a girl who’s young enough to be his granddaughter talk their way through their wedding night. It’s a well-acted chamber piece, but more of a fringe play than a film.

Nicholas Barber

NEXT WEEK Jonathan Romney visits the Civil War in A Field in England

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution