It’s funny I didn’t see my first American live-action film at the VIFF until the second-last day of the Festival. Black Bear was that film. It was quite a story.
The film begins with a woman in a swimsuit out by the dock near a lake in the Adirondacks region and just meditates by the water instead of swimming. We later see that woman walking down a road in what appears to be a remote area of the woods. She has a lot of baggage. A man stops to ask if she’s lost. She says she’s an actress-turned-director names Allison. He introduces himself as Gabe. He is actually the director who will be working with Allison on an upcoming production. Allison is willing to accept Gabe’s offer to bring her luggage to the place. During the walk she reveals she chose directing because she’s hard to work with. She’s known for emotional outbursts. She hopes to spend some time at the cottage in hopes that the natural greenness with help her unblock her creativity and help her to produce her next project. They arrive at their cottage near the lake with his pregnant wife Blair waiting. Gabe tries to introduce Blair to Allison, but you can sense the jealousy in Blair’s body language, even though she tries to hide it.
During the dinner, things really get heated. Blair talks of how they moved from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks; because Brooklyn was too expensive and they were getting nowhere in the film business. Blair soon gets all confrontational with Gabe. She even gives him a hard time in front of Allison about a comment she perceives as his male chauvinisms. Allison sides with Gabe, adding more suspicious feeling from Blair. The dinner leads to more friction from Blair about Gabe and how she can’t stand the world he creates. Late at night, Gabe finds Allison alone. The two develop a good conversation. Then it leads to a lot more. It turns out Gabe has had a thing for Allison since they first met and she has a thing for Gabe too. Right while they are about to have sex, Blair physically attacks both of them. She knew it all along and she’s infuriated. She even chases Allison out, but it leads to an area in the woods where Allison is confronted by a black bear. The bear doesn’t attack Allison at all.
The film then progresses forward weeks or months later to the wrapping up of the film. The shooting is taking place around the cottage and the dock. The crew is setting up. The directors are having confrontations of how to have the next scenes shot. Gabe and Blair are cooperating well for this project. It’s possible they’ve decided mostly for the sake of the film to put all personal feelings aside. But for the last scene, Allison appears to be out of it. The calm, cool Allison from that time before is not there. She appears angered or hurting inside. However the final scenes still need to be shot.
As Allison becomes more uncooperative with the actors and crew on the set, she finds a place to withdraw herself. Problems arise all over the place. The crew have their issues of setting up and one has a severe stomach problem. The directors have an ego clash over what is to be done. Gabe and Blair have talks about the film that appear to be more about their relationship, or fading relationship. The actors squabble with each other. However it’s Allison who’s the biggest of the problems. She’s just become an emotional time-bomb. It’s unclear why she’s that way but any attempt from anyone to get her to work properly on the scene, especially from Gabe, only succeeds in making her even more confrontational. Eventually she does agree to the scene, but it appears things could go better. After the shootings done, she leaves the cottage where she comes across the bear again. Again the bear doesn’t attack and Allison smiles for the first time today.
This is an interesting story about a bizarre love triangle and how it intermingles with film. An actress who wants to venture into film decides to meet with the director of her next film. She makes the way into the house and the wife suspects something. Everything falls apart from that point on. Blair starts friction with Gabe while Allison appears to coax him. It results in an affair that drives Blair angry. Three weeks later, work on the film happens and Allison can’t take it anymore. She becomes an emotional timebomb. You’re left wondering why? She said at the beginning of the film she was confrontational on the set. Is that the reason why Allison is acting like a time bomb? Or could it be she still has feelings for Gabe? Or is something deeper than that? Even of a natural sense? You’re left to wonder.
Despite how interesting the story is, it does get confusing. The first story appears to set up for the second story. I can understand how films don’t try to reveal everything mainly so the audience can make their own decisions, but there’s still too much that’s unclear. One of the things that’s unclear is whether the marriage between Gabe and Blair ended. They get along better while shooting. You’re left to wonder did they patch things up or did they split and are now getting along better? Another is Allison. I know I mentioned how Allison’s behavior on the final day of shooting get you wondering. If you saw the scene yourself, you yourself would find it hard to decide the biggest reason why she’s acting that way. Also confusing is the role of the bear in the film. The film’s two scenes are titled Part One: The Bear On The Road and the second scene is Part Two: The Bear By The Boat House, but you don’t see the black bear until the very end. The bear doesn’t attack Allison in either scene and the appearance of the bear causes Allison to smile at the end. You’re left to wonder what’s the symbolism of the bear? Allison coming to grips with her mentality? Her tranquility with nature finally reached? You’re left wondering.
Despite the confusing story, this is an ambitious film from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. This is the sixth film and third feature-length film he writes and directs and the first of his films he doesn’t act in. The film is impressive that it is a psychological film about human nature and how personal problems, especially among people in the arts, cause the friction, but its imperfections are noticeable. The best work from the film comes from the actress Aubrey Plaza. She goes from an actress who doesn’t appear to be the type to call a time-bomb at first to one who fits the description of ‘time-bomb’ perfectly. Her transformation was excellent because she was portraying two different Allisons and it worked excellently. Christopher Abbott was also good as Gabe: the director left confused in all of this. Sarah Gadon was excellent with portraying Blair as one who does not shy away from letting her personal feelings show. Additional technical efforts that highlight the film are the cinematography of Robert Leitzell, the cinematic score of Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, and the images of pencil and paper of going from scene to scene and the end credits.
Black Bear hasn’t won too many awards on the film festival circuit. It was a nominee for a NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival and a New Vision Award at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival. Nevertheless those who saw it have talked a lot about it and its story and it has become a major attraction at film festivals.
Black Bear does make for a drama about a bizarre love triangle. It’s a story of the affair and the aftermath. The problem is there’s too much in the film that is unclear, including the inclusion of the bear.
DISCLAIMER: VIFF 2019 has ended, but I will continue to post reviews of the films I’ve seen as many will be released in theatres later this year or next year.
At first you’ll think I saw The Death Of Dick Long because of the title. In actual fact, I’ve heard so many lewd jokes in my life, I’m no longer charmed by it. I’m actually more bored with lewd humor. As for the film, I found the film to be funny in a bizarre and dark sort of way.
The film begins with Dick Long playing in his band Pink Freud with his bandmates Zeke Olson and Earl. The night consists of playing and partying, especially with fireworks. However overnight, Zeke and Earl leave a severely-wounded Dick by the entrance of the emergency room of a hospital and take his wallet for the sake of ‘anonymity.’ It’s now up to Earl and Zeke to hide everything.
Earl loads up his truck with several items. He tells his casual girlfriend Lake that he’s leaving for a family emergency, but goes to work. Zeke showers to get all the blood off him and lies down next to his wife Lydia to think he slept the whole night with her. Upon waking up, Lydia asks Zeke to drive their daughter Cynthia to school. When she asks for cash, he accidentally pulls out Dick’s wallet . He gives her cash, but puts Dick’s driver’s license on the counter. Before he takes the daughter to school, he sees Dick’s blood from last night on the backseat. He covers it with a sheet to make like nothing’s happening.
Over at the hospital, Dr. Richter, the doctor who discovered Dick at the door, has learned that Dick has died overnight. He notices that his wounds are severe anal wounds and he calls the police over it. The case is handled and investigated by Sherriff Spenser, a vet in the town police department, and she enlists her young inexperienced trainee Officer Dudley to help solve the death.
However Zeke and Earl learn you can’t keep things secret for long. Zeke drives Cynthia to school, but stops to fill the car up with gas. Cynthia leaves the car to go the store and talks with Officer Dudley. Zeke notices Dick’s blood soaked through the cloth and onto Cynthia’s dress. Zeke then rushes in to take Cynthia without Dudley seeing and gives her the wallet.
Before dropping Cynthia off, he makes a call to Earl to see him immediately. Earl has to be away from his girlfriend Lake for the day. The two scrub all the blood off the seat from the car while Cynthia is bathing. Earl offers to drive Cynthia to school and then calls Dick’s widow Jane to see if she knows anything. She knows nothing and thinks Dick is either missing or just away for a long time. This allows Earl and Zeke to fake a scenario that the car was stolen. They try dumping it in the river, but the river is too shallow and it only falls in halfway.
Sherriff Spenser and Officer Dudley get into the case, which they assume it to be a murder, but are unable to keep it a secret from the rest of the town. Word hits Lydia and she calls Zeke in fear of her life. Zeke insists the car is stolen, but he still has to meet with the police. Spenser and Dudley arrive at his house to ask him the questions. The questioning is to be brief as forensics have turned up some positive results. However Cynthia’s in the room. Whenever Zeke tells a lie, Cynthia is the first to point it out and to correct. Lydia is there hearing it all. Lydia tells Cynthia to watch television as she tries to get to the bottom with Zeke about his inconsistencies and demands the truth. Zeke confesses the truth of Dick’s death, by breaking down. Lydia is heartbroken. However Lydia is soon horrified when she learns of the shocking details of Dick’s death and demands that Zeke leave.
Zeke meets up with Earl in a bar and the two resolve that they won’t run away. However there’s a need for tactics as they learn Spenser and Dudley will be heading over to the Olsons for further questioning and then to Jane’s house to tell the news of what happened to Dick. Zeke rushes over to Jane’s house and she finds him in the stable drunk and shirtless. Zeke reassures Jane that Dick’s not having an affair and agrees to take her to his house. There, Officer Dudley and Lydia are there demanding answers. Dudley even just noticed the drivers license of Richard Long on the counter. Zeke agrees to do so with Lydia and Dudley sitting at the dinner table. The various conflicting stories of Zeke and Lydia spiral out of control with Zeke running out with Dudley chasing after him. Lydia is the one to break the news to Jane. Meanwhile Zeke is at Dick’s stable attempting to free Dick’s horse Comet before he will surrender himself to Dudley.
The final scene shows the aftermath. The big shocker to Dudley from Spenser is that Zeke has been released, feeling keeping him incarcerated before the trial would cause more harm than good to Lydia, Cynthia and Jane. Zeke may be a released man before the trial, but he still tries to maintain a closeness with Cynthia despite Lydia wanting him out of their lives. Even Jane’s life is not the same. The film ends with Zeke meeting up at a hotel room with Earl and Lake. The two talk about what the next plan is for all three to survive the aftermath of all this.
This film is an ambitious attempt at a crime comedy. You have a man left for dead at a hospital and you wonder what’s going on. You have the two trying to cover it up and hide from the law, but fail in a spectacularly hilarious way. You have law enforcers that are two opposites– one experienced and relaxed and the other inexperienced and both excited but nervous– at getting the job done. It tries to do it in a slow-but-steady manner. It’s not the most entertaining, but it does it well and will keep your intrigue. Mind you the story of Dick’s death will keep you intrigued, if not weirded out. The whole story leaves you wondering from the very start what’s the main motive of the cover up? Is it their involvement in his death? Or is it because of Dick’s humiliating death? It is bizarre.
Now the redneck stereotype is one people often get a laugh out of. However there are many times in entertainment where the redneck stereotype is often reduced to cartoonish or stock characters. Here, the characters are more three-dimensional. Yes, they have their idiotic moments and comedic moments common with the ‘redneck’ we’re familiar with, but they are more down-to-earth and have more dimension. They come across as common people. One thing that’s surprising is you see a multi-racial couple. Usually redneck couples are nothing but white.
The rednecks aren’t the only characters with more dimension in this film. The police force whose lack of intellect doesn’t come across like your typical stocky ‘dumb cop.’ They are dim-witted, but they don’t cross the line as cartoonish either.
Finally another difference from your typical redneck comedy is the ending is very much in sync with human feelings. The story is about a hilarious way of covering up a friend’s humiliating death and failing, but the human factor is there at the very end. Zeke may have failed in spectacular fashion, but he still knows he has to deal with a daughter he loves very much and a wife who turns against him that faithful night. We have Jane, Dick’s widow, trying to live her life, but it’s hard. Everything changed that night. The film ends Earl and Lake: the two people in the world that understand Zeke and what happened that night best. I think the ending is what best made the film work in being a redneck comedy with actual dimension.
The film is directed well by Daniel Scheinert. He’s the director best known for Swiss Army Man. Here he doesn’t shine as a director, but he does piece together the story by Billy Chew in a way that works. The acting also made the story work. Janelle Cochran and Sarah Baker were good at playing their roles of the two officers with different personalities and different approaches. Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland were good at playing Zeke and Earl. They did a good job of playing rednecks that had dimension instead of coming off as cartoonish. Virginia Newcomb and Jess Weixler were also good as playing the redneck wives who did lack some smarts at first, but would appear headstrong but hurt in the end.
The Death Of Dick Long is a humorous redneck crime story that is able to make a comedy out of a manslaughter incident, but doesn’t forget the human factor either. This is the least cartoonish ‘redneck comedy’ I’ve seen, and it works.
“We must dare to invent the Future”
Judging by the title, you’ll think The Great Green Wall is about something environmental. You are mostly right. However this film is about something more, just like the wall.
Before I get into the film, I need to explain what the Great Green Wall is. It’s official name is The Great Green Wall Of The Sahara And The Sahel. The Great Green Wall is an environmental project and initiative meant to protect Africa against climate change and desertification. Those most vulnerable to desertification are the lands and people around the areas where the Sahara ends off known as the Sahel. This environmental wall of reforestation is to be done across twelve African countries around the Sahel. The main goal is to prevent the spread of the Sahara that has desertified a lot of green space in the past, strengthen regional resilience and natural systems for a sound ecosystem, and also maintain better living conditions and a better quality of life and even a future for the people’s of Africa around this area.
The idea of a ‘great green wall’ to contain the Sahara was first imagined by a British botanist in 1954, but was never taken seriously. The idea was brought up again in 2002 at an international meeting of the Community Of Sahel-Saharan States and approved in 2005. The African Union endorsed it in 2007 and the first plantings occurred in 2008. Eleven of the countries involved created the Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAGGW) as well as a harmonized strategy to plant out the Wall was adopted by African nations and implemented by the UN in 2012. However by 2016, only 15% of the acreage has been planted. Although many countries have been successful in planting, many of their plans are threatened by civil war.
The film is the Wall as seen through the eyes of Malian singer Inna Modja. She was born Inna Boccum but was called Ina Modja by her mother as a child as Modja is ‘bad girl’ in her native Malian language. Inna grew up in a musical family and was heavily influenced by both the traditional sounds of African pop music and American hip-hop and R&B of her teen years as well as the jazz records owned by her father. When she broke into the music world in 2009, she settled for a pop/soul sound. Her music ranges from themes of common pop songs to songs with strong political messages. Her music is not only big in Africa but also popular in France and Belgium.
Right at the start of the film, Inna talks of her own identity having elements with the Sahel. She grew up around the Malian area of the Sahel. The Great Green Wall is a project she is heavily dedicated to. She states the biggest elements the Wall is meant to combat: desertification, climate-change, poverty and even war. She also talks of her planned trip to visit areas around the Sahel where the Wall is vital to. It’s a trip that will take almost a year and will face the interruptions of her music schedule.
Before she embarks on her trip, she shows areas of Mali where forestation has occurred. She talks of her own childhood growing up on the Sahel. The first country she visits is Senegal. There she learns of the common belief shared by many young Africans: ‘flee to Europe or die trying.’ There’s a common belief in most of the young of Africa that there’s no future here in Africa. That their future is in Europe. Inna sees the importance of the wall as a way to keep the young in their African countries. It’s critical as it’s projected that 60 million young Africans are anticipated to migrate or attempt to migrate to Europe within the next 20 years.
Inna goes into more countries over time. She goes into Burkina Faso. One of her favorite leaders is Thomas Sankara: former president of Burkina Faso. She admires him and also hold dear to his saying ‘we must dare to invent the future.’ She then travels to Chad: a country that has suffered the most environmental damage. We learn of Lake Chad of how it used to be a big lake and it’s dissolved almost into nothing. She tells of the poverty and wars that have come from Chad’s environmental devadtation, including war children.
She then travels to Nigeria: the most populative country in Africa. She meets up with singer Waje who is a top singing star in Nigeria. She uses her fame for good and is just as supportive of the wall. Over in Nigeria she learns of many ugly truths that are common in Africa. The biggest one being children turned into soldiers. She even talks to two former child soldiers that tell their story. She then goes to Niger which has the highest birthing rate in the world: more than seven per mother. She meets with mothers who talk about the hope for their children, including one mother who just gave birth.
Her last trip is to Ethiopia. There she meets with singer Betty G., but she also sees the biggest ray of hope. For most the biggest image of Ethiopia is the famine of 1984. During the famine, hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation. Much of the areas of land that was dry dirt during the famine have seen forestry and horticulture replanted and developed. The area where there was mass starvation and death is now full of plant life. After Ethiopia, Inna returns back to Mali with a new outlook on Africa and ready to send the message out in her performances.
The film is an informative film as it’s a documentary about the wall and how much it means to a singer. We should also know that Inna is also a political activist. She has not only spoken about the Great Green Wall bit also spoken out against violence against women and female genital mutilation, which she herself was against her parents’ will. Inna is not afraid to include these topics in her music.
The film shows how Inna is passionate about the topic and wants to go to many parts of the Sahel to learn more of the issues surrounding the Sahel and to remind all of us why this Wall is important. Especially since only 15% has been planted and grown. We’re reminded of the Wall’s importance. It’s not just to prevent desertification. It’s not only to bring back an ecoculture in Africa. It’s also for the future of these African countries. It’s to give them a livelihood. It’s to prevent or end wars. It’s to give future generation of Africa a future there instead of Europe.
The film, which is co-produced by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, shows how this Wall is about African countries coming together to make this wall happen. One thing about this Wall is that many treaties and organizations have come about this. This involved many times of leaders of African nations coming together. However through Inna’s eyes we also see musicians coming together to help make this wall a reality and help make for a better Africa. We see as she meets with Malian band Songhoy Blues, we see as she meets with Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, as she meets with Nigerian singer Waje and as she meets with Ethiopian singer Betty C. In each case, the musicians are people that put messages in their music. We see them bonding with Inna for a common cause as they also share the same concerns. The Wall means a lot to them, and here we see how music unites people for a common cause.
The Great Green Wall is about an ambitious environmental project, but the film shows this wall is a lot more. It’s for the future and liveliness of Africa, to prevent the spread of the world’s biggest desert and for the future people of Africa to have a life of promise. The film, and Inna Modja, do an excellent job in delivering this message.
WIKIPEDIA: Great Green Wall. Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2019.<Great Green Wall>
WIKIPEDIA: Inna Modja. Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2019. <Inna Modja>
Back at this year’s VIFF, I was hoping to see at least one Canadian live-action feature. I didn’t have the luck. I was actually luckier after the VIFF ended as Beeba Boys hit theatres just a week after. I had the chance to finally see it for myself.
The story is about Jeet Johar, a Punjabi-Canadian mob boss who is seen as the big man in Greater Vancouver, especially Surrey. He’s seen by many in the Indo-Canadian community what many would see of a mob boss: a father figure, a leader, a man who helps his community and a man who tells other not to mess with their own.
However there’s another side to Jeet. Despite having a set of loyal men who carry out his actions, he’s a loyal father who’s concerned about his well-being. He’s very upset when his father drinks in front of his son and he’s concerned how his mother feels about him, even though he acts like it doesn’t bother him.
One time, Jeet is arrested for murder. The jury finds him not guilty and he wins the attraction of one of the jurors, the daughter of Polish immigrants. However the police know he’s guilty and they set up a man to join Jeet’s gang and have him set up for what they hope will be his capture.
Jeet faces a load of rivalry from other mob leaders, an Indo-Canadian business leader who has become hugely successful and various other Indo-Canadians trying to get a piece of their own crime action for their own gain. Meanwhile his love for Katya is growing despite her family’s opposition to her love to Jeet.
However with Jeet’s lust for power comes incidents along the way that send him a message he’s doomed to downfall. This comes from members of his gang being killed to even a shootout at his place, endangering his own family. This leads to an ending that is far from predictable but doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect.
The film has a lot of of good elements and ingredients brought by writer/director Deepa Mehta: the separation of the values held by the older Punjabis from the younger Punjabis who question and can even ridicule the values and loyalty held by older Punjabis. There’s even the perceived jealousy felt by a lot of young Punjabis towards those who have made it successfully and feel that they have to kill them to get ahead. There’s even the scene of how some children of those who have made it feel a distance from their parents and even feel neglected because of their parents’ focus on making it.
There’s also how one looks at the leader of organized crime as a positive thing, especially the young. That was especially seen in that young Punjabi boy at the beginning talking how Jeet tells others not to mess with them the same way Bruce Lee showed others not to mess with the Chinese. Typical young male with a ‘might is right’ attitude. There’s the feel of power associated by many with the might of the gun. That was shown when one of Jeet’s men gets a young boy to feel what a ‘real gun feels like.’ Even though he unloaded the gun before, it sends a message about how addicting the power of the gun can get. There’s even the feeling they have to rule the night club scenes as shown in many scenes in the film.
The film also includes many other unique and vital ingredients. One unique ingredients to the film include the mix of languages as it goes from English to Punjabi to ‘Punglish.’ Another good ingredient is not just the focus on Punjabi immigrants but also some minor focus on the Ukrainian aquacize teacher and Katya Drobot. Sometimes I think the film is not just showing the struggle of Punjabi-Canadians to exist socially in Canada but the struggles of many immigrants. I found it surprising since I live in Vancouver that is one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the world.
There’s also the character of Jeet who’s trying to make like he’s the boss but struggles to be a responsible father and is easily infuriated when his father drinks. Soon Jeet would have to fess up as his son now thinks violence is cool.
However the main problem is that the film does not put it all together in a well-constructed manner. The film shows a lot of potential as it features a story within a topic that rarely gets proper focus and has offered few effective solutions in the past. However there are times in which the news stories and even the newscaster herself come off as too cartoonish. There are times when the story goes from telling a story of an Indo-Canadian mob boss turns into ‘preaching’ about the problem. I’ve seen other gangster films before that told a story that reflected a common problem in society without resorting to ‘preaching’ methods. There were even parts that came off as ridiculous such as mob rival Jamie being intruded upon during a fellatio by one of Jeet’s men. All I can say is for each Canadian gangster film like this, there are at least 50 American gangster films that are better.
Mehta brings an ambitious project with Beeba Boys however the problem is it’s not done in a well-edited, well-pieced manner and it comes off as unsteady, sometimes preachy and even confusing at times. I will however give Mehta credit. It’s obvious Mehta, whose 2005 film Water was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is presenting a topic very close to her concern: the rise in crime among young Indo-Canadians, especially around Surrey and other part of Greater Vancouver. Being a resident of Greater Vancouver myself, I often hear the news stories and concerns however I myself can’t really make a statement about this topic because I don’t have direct involvement with the Indo-Canadian communities in Greater Vancouver. Mehta however is very knowledgeable about this and she feels she has something to say about this. I give Mehta credit for presenting a topic on the big-screen that gets so little focus but I feel that it could have been done better as a big-screen film.
The acting was good but it wasn’t stellar. Randeep Hooda did a good job as playing Jeet Johar: a gangster leader who’s art tough guy, part concerned father and part troubled man. Balinder Johal was the best supporting player as the concerned mother. The mix of IndoPop or IndoRock were some of the best music that could have been added to the score while the more synthesized parts of the score didn’t fit well and took away from the professionalism.
Beeba Boys is an ambitions movie that attempt to send a message as it tells a story. However it makes a lot of noticeable mistakes and it doesn’t compare to many of the crime dramas before it.
Stories We Tell was one film that was added to the VIFF at the last minute. I was expecting this to be more of a live-action film but it turned out to be a documentary to my surprise. And quite an intriguing one.
The documentary is directed by famed Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley. The documentary first appears to be her father, siblings and other friends and loved ones talking about her mother Diane Polley, from her career as an actor and a singer to her work in a Montreal play around the time her pregnancy with Sarah was starting (April 1978) to the abortion that wasn’t to the birth of Sarah to Diane’s death. All of those involved tell their story with reenacted images appearing in the style of Super-8 home movies. Some even receive direction from Sarah in telling their story and Rebecca Jenkins is cast to play Diane in the Super-8 re-enactments and fake television footage.
After more than half an hour, you think it’s a chronology of the Polley family, or at least the mother. It turns out to be a lot more: a ‘family secret.’ After the death of her mother, Sarah began to question her birth father. Could it really be Diane’s husband Michael Polley or was it another man? It even became a bit of a family joke at the dinner table when Sarah was a young teenager. Eventually the jokes died down and Sarah did some serious business about it. She learned about the actors her mother was acting within that play. She tried to look up one whom many in her family joke as the father but it’s not. Later she learns through conversations of those with the play and through a paternity test her father was Harry Gulkin, Canadian actor and film producer.
The story about searching for the truth of her birth father is seen and heard from the various angles interviewed for the movie: Sarah, her four siblings, Michael Polley, Harry, Harry’s daughter from a previous marriage, and castmates of that fateful Montreal show. The interviews are real in their retelling of the story but some interview dialogue is dramatized for the sake of the film. Possibly to show how a story that happens turns into a story told. I think that was the point Sarah was trying to get across in this is how people take the experiences of their lives and turning them into stories. That explains why we see Sarah giving those she interviews direction at times.
One thing about this documentary is that despite the re-enactment of events on Super-8 film (which had me fooled into thinking they were actually home movies) and the facts being told dramatically by some of the interviewees is that the drama does stop. There is a point where Michael does admit that there was a time in the late 70’s when the marriage seemed to be going dry: he had ambitions of being a playwright but settled on becoming an insurance salesman. He even confesses he told Diane during that time it’s okay for her to romance another man. Another point near the end, Michael cuts away from his cheery personality and his ability to laugh off the situation into showing the hurt he feels knowing he’s not Sarah’s biological father. It’s like that for all the others interviewed too where they all have a calm face or are smiling when they tell the story throughout but it’s near the end when they’re deep in thought that the hurt comes to them. You can see it in their faces.
This is not just a documentary that exposes a family secret of a popular Canadian celebrity. It’s also about Sarah’s relation to the people around her, both family and friends. New people came into her life after learning the truth. Most of her personal relations with others remained unchanged. She still has a healthy relationship with her siblings from her mother’s side as well as the father she always knew. She also has developed a healthy relationship with her biological father and her daughter: people that just came into her life years ago. Another angle of the documentary is it shows how despite laughing off the story, there are still some that feel hurt knowing the truth about the story. Siblings she always knew as full-siblings are now half-siblings. Even the half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage are hurt knowing the truth. The father has hurt behind the laughter. Harry occasionally thinks of the years he missed seeing Sarah grow up.
The thing that surprises me most about this is how successfully the family and others involved were in their ability to keep it secret and away from the media. We shouldn’t forget that this was all happening when Sarah was a public figure. The first secrets were unraveling during her days as Sarah Stanley in Road To Avonlea. It accelerated just as she was becoming the it-girl of Sundance in the late 90’s. The truth was finally revealed just as she was making a name for herself as a director in Away From Her. If this secret had been let out earlier, this could have put a big dent in her career and her image as ‘Canada’s Sweetheart’ during her child actor days could have been tarnished. It’s good to see the family and those who knew the truth kept quiet about this and that only Sarah herself could allow this to be exposed through this film only now. In a world that’s tabloid-obsessed and loves celebrity scandal, it’s good to see this was kept quiet enough to give Sarah the privacy she wanted.
THREE BITS OF TRIVIA: First, Diane Polley was a casting director for two made-for-TV movies of Anne Of Green Gables: the Canadian novel series the family drama Road To Avonlea was spun off of. Second, Diane died only three days after the pilot episode of Road To Avonlea was aired across Canada. Third, Sarah notes on the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) website that at least two journalists knew of the story for years but respected her wishes to keep it private and for her to be the first to let the truth out.
Once again, Sarah can add another accomplishment to her resume. She has already accomplished television acting as a child, movie acting as a teenage adult, directing and scriptwriting just years ago and now documentary director. It’s interesting how back during the late 90’s, Sarah turned her back on Hollywood in an attempt to be taken more seriously despite being referred to as the Sundance it-girl. It was a risky move that has paid off over the years. That’s something to admire especially since we’re in a time when people are mostly willing to become famous however they can, even if it doesn’t involve talent at all.
This is one documentary I saw at the VIFF that works well as a big-screen film. I myself saw it at the 1100-seat Vogue stage theatre in Vancouver. However this is one documentary that would best draw a crowd with Canadians or those into arthouse films. Those are the filmgoers who recognize Sarah best. Outside of that, it’s still a documentary that can touch one who may have a similar story like this in their own family. For the record, American film company Roadside Attractions has purchased the film and plans to release it in the US in early 2013. No word yet on Canadian theatrical release. It’s all in the hands of the NFB.
Stories We Tell is an amusing and touching documentary about the retelling of a family secret within Sarah Polley’s family. It’s as charming and witty as it is intimate, touching and even heartbreaking. Definitely worth seeing.