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. 


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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones