Friday, September 27, 2013

Stories We Tell: In Their Own Words

Stories We Tell was our third documentary in a row at the cinema. It's a good thing it's extensive use of re-enactments puts it somewhere between the non-fiction and fiction categories. Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley is the focal point of this family story. It is basically a quest. Sarah goes, video camera in hand, in search of her stage actor mother Diane who died when she was eleven. It becomes a story about identity, family and relationships that is impossible to explain further without spoiling it.

Diane's second husband is former actor British-born Michael Polley. Michael is very much the film's narrator and gets two bites at reconstructing the past. He reads his version of their history, as well as being interviewed by his daughter.

In fact all the key family members are interviewed at length and so are many others involved in this saga. They are invited to "describe the whole story in your own words". Of course we don't get the complete interviews or the whole story. Clever editing builds the mystery and the tension. There is even a one-line sting in the tail, just when you think you have it all figured out.

There extensive use of home movies, some apparently genuine and others using actors in 're-creations'. You can usually tell which are not 'authentic' - the actors are usually better looking than the people they're playing. She explores the nature of point of view, multiple realities and memory. It is also about who owns the stories. Stories We Tell operates at several levels. It is a meta-documentary for those who like to sift the more abstract layers.

Sarah's mob are impressive. Just subjecting themselves to this examination must have been daunting enough. Handing her control of the story takes real faith. Their participation and cooperation indicate the warmth they feel for her and their trust in her character and her ability as a filmmaker.

Sarah Polley is an auteur of the highest calibre.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Salinger: Hunting for Holden

Writer/director/producer Shane Salerno has given us an in-depth look at J.D. Salinger's life.

The most enlightening part of the story, for those unfamiliar with his history, involves Salinger's war experiences, which included the D-Day landing and a holocaust death camp. Apparently he had six chapters of Catcher in the Rye with him at the Normandy landing so his literary direction and themes were probably well charted before these horrors.

Doubtless his war service had a lasting effect on his views on public life. However, his reputation as a recluse seems exaggerated as he seems to have had a circle of loyal friends, including in his local community. His wives, children and partners have a different slant as he locked himself in his writing shack for weeks at a time.

He shared a deep rejection of the celebrity culture with To Kill a Mocking Bird's Harper Lee. The same cannot be said for the long list of Arts celebs who give their insights into Salinger's life and character. They range from Gore Vidal to Martin Sheen. The interviews with his writing and publishing colleagues, and friends from the early days shed much more light. Thank goodness, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer weren't around for the making of the documantary.

His fascination seemed to be not only with young women but with youth itself, as his iconic character Holden Caulfield attests. His self-deprecating J.D. is for juvenile delinquent gives a clue. His early romance with teenager Oona O'Neill, who married Charlie Chaplin, is presented as part of a pattern that continued in future relationships.

At 2 hours, it's at least half an hour too long. Some of the episodes of admirers tracking down their elusive idol do not warrant the treatment given them. Many of the reenactments and cinema scenes of Salinger writing also add little to our understanding. Lost count of the number of times Cornish–Windsor Covered Bridge appears as a filler to a minor diversion in the narrative.

For fans of his writing, there is the promise of lots of fiction publications of his post-1960s works commencing in a couple of years time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Gatekeepers: Israel "Winning the Battles, Losing the War"

When we were in Jordan last month (Aug 2013) we spoke to a Palestinian who lives and works there. He had gone to an Israeli university before moving to Jordan. He remarked that if they did not have enemies, they would tear themselves apart. His comment reverberated after watching Dror Moreh's documentary The Gatekeepers.

The film centres on revealing and candid interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom.

It divided into 7 segments, as outlined on Wikipedia:
  • No Strategy, Just Tactics – covering the emerging role of the Shin Bet from the Six-Day War and the occupation of the Palestinian territories
  • Forget About Morality – about the Bus 300 affair
  • One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter – about the peace process following the Oslo Accords
  • Our Own Flesh and Blood – about Jewish terrorism, including the Jewish Underground and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin
  • Victory Is to See You Suffer – about negotiations with the Palestinians during the Second Intifada
  • Collateral Damage – about the assassination of Yahya Ayyash and other prominent Hamas militants
  • The Old Man at the End of the Corridor – consisting of reflections on the activities of the Shin Bet and their ethical and strategic impact on the State of Israel

These are the men who had responsibility for targeted assassinations of the enemies of Israel, prisoner interrogations, the lives and deaths of their Prime Ministers. They would weigh the possible loss of "innocent" lives, the so-called collateral damage. They were dedicated to doing what it takes to protect the State of Israel. It is a job they did with passion and commitment. Several of the interviewees see religious parties and the political parties of the right opposed to a real settlement with the Palestinians as key obstacles to securing last peace and security.

Some of the quotable quotes;

Carmi Gillon:
"For Israel, it's too much of luxury not to speak with our enemies. When we refuse to talk, we make a mistake."
"We are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering, ... it kills me..."

Avi Dichter:
"You can't make peace using military means".

Ami Ayalon:
“We’re winning all the battles ...and we’re losing the war.”
"You can't make peace using military means".

Yuval Diskin:
"What's unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant..."

Avraham Shalom:
“we have become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war on terror.”

Yaakov Peri: “when you leave the service, you become, a bit of a leftist.”

This is a must-see documentary for all who are interested in understanding the Middle East and the continuing quest for a negotiated peace.

The talking heads are never boring. They are effectively complemented by archival footage and computer animations by Mac Guff. It was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.