Features / Reviews

Encouraging Histories: ‘Stories We Tell’ (Sarah Polley) & ‘Act of Killing’ (Joshua Oppenheimer)

Stories We Tell

Documentaries are, by and large, informed by an array of differing viewpoints from a number of carefully selected subjects, each with their own claim to the ‘truth’ of a story. In Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, the acknowledgement of contradicting contributors is stumbled upon as if some sort of incredible revelation, handily justifying the preceding hour of personal history uncovered by Polley’s family and friends. The subject of the documentary, Polley’s mother Diane, has her elusive character pored over by her many children and partners, leading to the irrefutable conclusion that no one person is the keeper of someone else’s story; rather, they are one of many players in an individual’s personal history. It’s certainly an idea worth reminding oneself when watching retrospective documentaries on famous faces, to remain aware that the entire façade is utterly futile. That Polley attaches her findings to a beautifully moving story about the various meanings of one woman to the many salvages the material from existing on its lonesome as an open book on a family’s dirty laundry.

Towards the end of the film, one of Polley’s brothers asks the director what the film is about, to which she responds, “Memory… the way we tell stories”, as if convinced of small concepts wavering underneath an as yet indefinable thematic umbrella. But there’s some effective underpinning in the usage of Super8 footage detailing the Polley’s family history, a visual through line that signifies documentarians’ efforts to claim ownership of a true historical account because of the verisimilitudinous cinematic medium – more than, say, that of a plain textbook – and the use of vintage film stocks and techniques to superficially convince us of an ‘old’ bygone time.

Polley’s father Michael gifts a jewel of observation, opining that her final cut edited from hours of footage, along with her auteurist position, will grant her final subjective claim to the truth of the story. Indeed, it’s fitting that the film is narrated from Michael’s memoirs, positioned disproportionately against the words of her biological father Harry, who feeds into the thematic current with an arrogant claim to exclusive, unadulterated understanding of Diane. Michael’s poetic reflections are a soothing push through the tangled knots of history when contrasted against Harry’s blunt, self-regarding assertions. Shall we side with that which is more aesthetically pleasing, though no more possessive of the truth? There’s more questions raised in this deceptively simple family document than at first meets the eye. The touching recollections are just an added bonus.

Act of Killing

Although Polley sits her subjects down and gently teases them toward subjective truths and inaccuracies, her probing is altogether less audacious than that of Joshua Oppenheimer, whose Act of Killing seeks out an isolated case in history, picks one side and then commits to its fallacies wholeheartedly, almost farcically, until the trauma is violently wrenched out into the open. Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a unique look at the Indonesian killings waged from 1965-66 and beyond, enacted by a militaristic death squad possessed with a will to exterminate the threat of Communism by any means necessary. Aligning the camera with a man like Anwar Congo, a powerful gangster responsible for the murder of hundreds of people, seems an infinitely more interesting prospect than tirelessly compiling the many mournful accounts from survivors and victims’ families – at the very least, one would assume the perpetrators have need to supply a far-reaching alibi that would explain away their heinous crimes.

Not quite. “We have to show the history,” says Anwar Congo. “This is who we are.” Without whitewash, the gangsters gleefully brag over the number of people they killed, treating their crimes with the same casual regard as a game of bowling. “I’m a winner, so I make my own definitions,” boasts Anwar. Unlike Polley’s shared history – feeling itself out, constantly changing shape with each new revelation – this is the sort of chronology where the winning side, by virtue of its remaining numbers and privileged pedestal, is free to write the history books.

Shocking enough, but Oppenheimer bravely coerces these men into further embrace of their past actions, filming them in overblown re-enactments inspired by iconic gangster movies. Scarface is the point of reference here, uniformly revered by the killers in question; it influenced their adopted killing personas, which are now transferred back onto the silver screen through their reconstructive performances.

Polley regards the cinema as a tool of power wielded to boast an authoritative account, playing different histories against each other, leading to not so much a violent or conclusive ending but an open invitation for the viewer to ruminate on the implications of storytelling through speech, writing and cinema. Oppenheimer is more vigorous in utilising the medium to cement a false status, and a means of subverting the very same. The gangster clichés are emulated in the real world so as to write history in blood, and then repeated again on the screen, much like an ingredient passed through various cooking appliances, digested, consumed again, steadily broken down into visible, definable particles. Oppenheimer uses the camera to regurgitate history with a perverse persistence, until vomit quite literally spews from the sinners’ lips.


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