Stories We Tell: Self-reflexive documentary



In this lesson we saw a quite personal documentary made by actress/director Sarah Polley, because it is the story of her family, but more specifically the story of her mother.

In this piece of film, we are introduced to Sarah’s family, being it her father, two brothers and her sister. The focus of this story is all around her mother Diane, because as we get more into the story of the film, we discover that her mother was the light of the family. She was caring, loving, sweet and bubbly. She was a breath of life and love to all her children. And that is the way she is portrayed, or more accurately, that is the way she is explained by the people who knew her (her children, her husband, her sister, her friends).


All of this information and more is transmitted to the audience through a conjunction of witness interviews and old archival footage. The witnesses vary between family members and friends and the archival footage consists of old home movies from Sarah’s family, even having the wedding tape of her mother Diane’s first marriage to a man other than Sarah’s father. So it is really remarkable the amount of material she found and with every new thing the viewer learns, there is footage to back it up.


But probably the most impressive thing that Sarah did, creatively speaking, for this film was that she actually re-enacted some events in Diane’s life, with the use of Super 8 film stock. The feeling you have when watching the film is that you believe completely that all that you see is the truth because there is the footage to back it up, yet when the audience reaches the end of the film, it realizes that a lot of the home videos that were presented are actually only reenactments of how the events might have occurred. It was quite a surprise, at least to me.

Sarah Polley in a still from Stories We Tell

Another characteristic of this documentary is that the controversy between what is real and true is always put to the test. And this is the case when it comes to the discovery of Sarah’s biological father. This is the major plot twist in the film, because up until that point what the viewer knows of Diane is that she was an amazing woman but that same ‘ideal’ comes crashing down, a bit, when we know she cheated on her husband with another man. This is where we see the controversy on whether she did cheat and who could be the father, and Sarah’s personal journey to discover who he is.


So from this lesson, what I learned is that the truth can have many shapes and forms. It’s not just one thing but multiple. And what intrigued me most was the reconstruction of key scenes in Diane’s life were done to give the story a more human feeling was something quite inspiring to me, and also I like the idea of eventually working with old film stock because I really like that old ‘crackling’ feeling of the image and sound that is inherent to old movies from the 30s and 40s.


Capturing The Friedmans: Investigative

Capturing the Friedmans 1


Today we saw another type of documentary called “Capturing The Friedmans” that is the story about a seemingly normal everyday family of a mom, a dad and three young sons. Yet everything changes when it is brought to light, accusations against the father and the youngest son on pedophilia to the highest extreme.


As the documentary progresses we can see ‘both sides of the coin’ regarding the idea if Arnold (father) is actually a pedophile or not and the same goes to Jessie (son) who at just 18 years old, sees his whole life being turned upside down by hundreds of individual accusations put on him by the alleged children whom he molested during private computer lessons his father gave from their house.

The ‘investigative gaze’ is without a doubt the basis of what this film is about, because the majority of the information that is transmitted to the audience, is of former detectives from the case who explain their horrific findings on the scene of the crime, such as dozens upon dozens of children pornography magazines that Arnold had piled up and hidden in plain sight, although it is at this stage that the notion of contradictory evidence also comes to show within the storyline. Because if there were such a huge pile of the alleged magazines ‘from floor to ceiling’ according to Detective Frances Galasso from the Sex Crimes Unit at the time of the accusation, then why is that pile not shown in the crime scene photos taken of the place?


This is the part where the audience starts to question the veracity of the evidence that is presented to them. The contradictions keep piling up when Jessie says the his lawyer, Peter Panaro, wanted him to say that his father did molest him as well and that he wanted to plead guilty to the child molesting convictions that were him, but Peter counter argues that Jessie was the one who actually confided him, with tears in his eyes, that Arnold did indeed molest him as a child.

So in the end,  what is the truth about this case?

We will probably never know, because all that we can see are ‘versions of the truth’. No one will ever truly know the truth because people want to believe in what they want and the answer to who is guilty and who isn’t, can only be responded by the people who see this great documentary and decide by themselves on what the truth is.


From this lesson what I have learned is that in documentary, the director can subtly or not let the audience know in who he believes is telling the truth and who he dislikes. This can easily be portrayed either through favorable interviews in regards to a specific individual that would represent the director’s own opinion, and obviously the downgrading of characters through the use of interviews with close family members besides the use of archival footage that doesn’t show the person in question, ‘under the best light’.


Newspaper announcement of Arnold’s formal accusation.

Grizzly Man: Screening



In this class we saw Herzog’s documentary called “Grizzly Man” about the famous bear spokesperson Timothy Treadwell. This documentary served as a continuing presentation of the different types of “sub-genres” a documentary can have within itself. In this particular piece we follow a journey of man who believes that his sole purpose in life is to protect the grizzly bears from anyone and everyone that might want to harm them. So he spends most of his adult life, thirteen years to be exact, living in the wilderness with these bears and whilst he learned all that he could from them, he also started to love them. So this is his story.

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Personally, I quite enjoyed this documentary mostly because the way Herzog edited it, we can see Treadwell’s personality and character shine through pretty much throughout the entire length of the film. We can see Treadwell’s caring nature and his firm belief that that is his calling in life, but at the same time we get an inside view into Herzog’s personal opinion in the matter, and how opposite it is from the subject he’s filming. This documentary, that was based on 100 hours of raw/unedited footage that Treadwell shot himself whilst living alone in the forest, serves as a way to expose the story to the audience but also to give them a sense of self-reflexiveness because what Treadwell chose to do with his life isn’t something someone would just choose to do out of nowhere! At least not in the same circumstances as Treadwell. This piece of film has two main characters which are Timothy Treadwell (the bear lover) and Herzog (the opinionated director), and of course you have the bears in the background, yet they are not the main subject being analyzed here. We see Treadwell’s points of view that are almost immediately counter argued by Herzog through the means of a voice-over, and although this was compelling to listen it also through me a bit off-guard because at one point I didn’t know who to believe.


Werner Herzog, director.

With the knowledge that documentary evidence can either be used through the ‘making’ or the ‘revealling’ of virtue, “Grizzly Man” is right in the middle. For there is in fact a strategic way in which the filmmaker organized the footage as well as wanting it to have a meaning to the audience, but it is also has the subject in his own personal environment and as much as Herzog shares his own opinions he also sits back and observes almost as a third party to Treadwell’s impulsive acts.

Through this viewing I learned more about how even though a documentary needs to be as reliable as possible, given the documentary evidence that might exist (or not), the filmmaker can still be creative in his cinematic decisions in the way he wishes the story to be portrayed and understood by the audience, as well as being able to give his personal insight on the matter.

And here I leave you with a brief introduction to this amazing documentary, so you can see what Timothy is all about.

4 Little Girls: Documentary introduction



Today we kicked off our Screenwriting module with a first glance of a genre we are going to be talking about for the next couple of weeks. Yes, it is Documentary time. When I first started in this module, we learned all that we needed to learn about Melodrama which was nice but I am glad that we can now move on to something different.

We learned that even though a documentary needs to be truthful and “follow the rules” in order for it to be an accurate representation of an actual event in time and space, it can still be creative. We, potential filmmakers, can still let our creative juices flow and let them show through it. It’s just a matter of editing: the cutting, the order in which we put the footage, photographs, locations, interviews, the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, amongst so many others. It is in post-production that we can make a masterpiece out of a documentary. And that was interesting to acknowledge.


And to kick start our classes, we were shown a Spike Lee documentary entilted “4 Little Girls” which follows the story of four young children that were brutally murdered by a bomb explosion while at church in Alabama in 1963. This is the basis of the story yet Lee tells us much more than that, he tells us all the events that led up to this massacre as to show the audience the “why” this happened. He doesn’t condone these events but instead feels the need to justify and to bring a clarity to the world, of who, why and what happened or needed to happen to give a reason for these murders. I don’t know if he succeeded but at least he told a story that deeply moved audiences, well at least it moved me. Lee goes deep into the begginings of racial prejudice in Alabama with the showing of archival footage, still photographs and even interviews with victims or bystanders that were there at those times.


Later on in the afternoon seminar, our teacher mentioned something that I found quite alluring, when he said “Film is a ghostly medium”, right when he said it, I felt a chill come over me. The complete truthfulness of that statement caught me off guard. It is something so obvious yet it had such a poetic meaning to me. The idea of each film, even the current one’s, are and will someday be mere ghosts of the past is something morbidly fascinating to me. Yet, I always knew that film was such a beautiful medium where some of the greatest stories and pieces and History are forever “trapped” in film stock (or SD cards!) is something beyond precious. That beautiful moment when you can watch your favorite movie from the 1940’s and feel yourself being immersed into the wonderfulness of the acting, story and location. It’s priceless.

Though this viewing, I learned the difference between the different types of documentaries that exist as well as the basis of what type of documents I would need to obtain in order to, try, and give justice to the piece of history I would like to portray on screen.

P.S.- And I also learn that I rant too much. I am sorry.

Here is an interview with director Spike Lee talking about his documentary film.

Slumdog Millionaire: Screening



Today we saw the Oscar award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire”. I have never seen it before, although I knew somewhat what it was about. And I have to say that the movie wasn’t as amazing, for me, as I was told it would be. It was an ok movie, which I think focused more on character development than actually being type cast as an action film. I guess it is a romance, due to the fact that the story revolves around this boy Jamal who is in live, since childhood, with Latika a girl from the slum as well. It follows his life story showing, for most of the film, flashbacks of everything that happen up until the point where we, the audience, catches up with the film’s reality. The other focal point of the film is the fact that Jamal upon entering the “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” from Mumbai, he finds himself being the winner of the biggest amount ever in his country which gets him into serious trouble. He ends up being repeatedly tortured because the game makers can’t, or don’t, want to believe that he actually won the game fair and square, which eventually propels the story forward as he retells his life story to one of the police officers who interrogate him. This is the basis of the story, which obviously secondary characters who only serve to enhance the story with different plots and actually make the life of the protagonist quite difficult, if I am to be honest. Overall it was an average movie for me, and not one I think deserved as much recognition as the one it had.

Stagecoach: Screenwriter and Audience



As a follow up from last week we delved, finally!, into the importance of visualizing our story and how the audience might receive it, from the point of the screenwriter. We talked about how important it is to the screenwriter to be able to write with a clear mind as to be able to place the story and characters in the specific time line as well as being able to already imagine specific actors in the roles, even if they never get Vivien Leigh or Laurence Olivier portraying their characters. Yet one can dream… But that’s beside the point. The point being that a screenwriter has to think of what actor, or what “type” of actor, would best fit into a specific stereotype as well as thinking of stereotypes and genres and specific actors in relation to casting. As it is already evident, the screenwriter has a lot on his hands! It’s not just about the story, it’s about everything that goes along with it. In regards to the audience it is essential to be able to place the viewer properly within the film storyline. You can either offer an a cinematic experience where the viewer is simply the viewer, watching the action from the outside or you can quite literally consciously “write” them into the film as to make them feel like they are an integral part of the story’s development.

Stagecoach: Syntagms and Stereotypes



Stagecoach was the film we viewed in this lecture and this time we touch upon the idea that this film might actually be considered, by some people, to be more of an action film than a melodrama since there is that (mistaken) idea that a melodrama needs to be a soppy romance where everyone dies and no one lives happily ever after. Well that’s taking it to an extreme but that’s still how some people think. Hell, I thought like that, once upon a time! But one good thing about this module is that it has been slowly opening my eyes further to the actual complexity of movie genres in a way that I didn’t expect. So continuing what I was saying is that this film can be considered an action flick since it involves cowboys, Indians and shoot-outs yet you need to look further into the film to actually understand why that is not so. Yes this film has a lot of the characteristics of a regular action packed Western, but what is actually just under the surface is the existence of a lot more character plots rather than action plots. The film focuses more on the characters than the action itself, being that the key to why it is a melodrama. You see virtue being challenged constantly, the persecution of evil represented by the Indians and the corrupt bankers, amongst others.

Then we talked about the difference between syntagms and paradigms, basically meaning that the syntagmatic represents a specific “rule of combination” in this case being the Western and the paradigmatic is the various alternatives within a specific category, for example, the locations, firearms and clothing specific to the Western genre. And it’s with this in mind that the idea of stereotypes follows up behind. We all know that in film and even in real life we are all set as a specific stereotype within the eyes of society, and sometimes once you fall into that it’s sometimes hard to come out of it. Because, I think, one of the ways a stereotype is formed is through the very first impression we have of someone. We are a very hard society in the way that we are very hard on each other and consequently on ourselves, so it is obvious that that had to be transmitted onto film as well. In the Western we see represented in “Stagecoach” the main character stereotypes relating to that specific genre. We further go into the intertextuality and hidden ideology of the film. This lecture also helped me to understand the idea of stereotypes and how myth is formed.