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.


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.

tim_treadwell_large.jpg w=589&h=542

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.

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.

The Sweet Hereafter: Intertextuality



In this lecture through the viewing of Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” we further touched upon the idea of using binaries to identify the main conflicts within a film, in this being the notion of individuality versus community. Depending on which story you’re viewing/reading, these notions can very well change its meaning but in this film the idea of Individuality is characterized by the search for self-assertion and personal glory whereas the Community is where the idea of a familial code resides. It’s funny to see how our opinions about certain matters can change depending on what is presented to us and how there are almost infinite ways you can spin different binaries so they possess different meaning altogether. So in this film we are shown, even further, how complex the relationship between two binaries can be.

Study for 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin': The Children circa 1871 by George John Pinwell 1842-1875

Intertextuality is again touched upon more this week with the subtle reference of the Pied Piper folktale in this movie. “The Pied Piper” story has suffered various changes in meaning throughout the centuries and one of its interpretations is that of a man who lures children to him just by the music of his flute. And if we look and acknowledge that the Pied Piper is a villain who intends to cause harm, then in this film this role is attributed to Sam Burnell who sexually molests his daughter Nicole, in my opinion.

Screenwriting: 250 word screenplay



So right before Reading Week we were given a new assignment in Screenwriting that consisted of each of us writing a screenplay, up to 250 words maximum, that is a contemporary version of one of the stories we read from the famous Grimm’s Fairytales. And since I enjoy reading their take on these fantastical stories we’ve known since we were children, I felt like this was right up my alley. If you know what I mean.

So almost as soon as I was given this task, my thoughts were of basing my story on “The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers” fairytale. That story, out of the one’s we read, was the one that I felt spoke to me the most. The idea of a young boy who has never in his life felt fear, was something so interesting to the point that I felt the need to give my own spin to it. So from there I wrote a story about a teenage boy that doesn’t have the ability to dream. I felt that it’s somewhat similar to the original because here we have these two characters who spend their whole lives in search of something that they might never be able to find. And that they both share the same desperation, although in different levels, to find what is missing in their lives and in themselves.

So overall, it was a very enjoyable experience writing this short screenplay and even more so because we had to write it with the notion of it needing to be “film worthy material”, for we needed to write something simple enough that we could recreate it with our own resources but not too simple that it would turn out boring and flat. Since there would be an opportunity to possibly film it as one of our future assignments in Film Production.

So even though I won’t be filming my story anytime soon due to it still being so raw and not fully developed and the fact that it may be hard to portray it correctly on screen since we may not have the means or abilities to do so right now, I’m going to put it on hold and maybe return to it in a couple of years when I’m better prepared to give the story justice.