Film review – Stories We Tell (2012)

26 September 2013
Stories We Tell: Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley

Filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley is used to being filmed, but her family are not. Polley’s latest film as director is a documentary about her family and as Stories We Tell begins she includes footage of her family members and friends of the family preparing to be interviewed. As they settle down in recording studios or in front of cameras with large boom microphones hanging overhead, many of Polley’s interviewees comment on how nervous, apprehensive and uncertain they are about what is going to take place. By including this footage Polley establishes that the documentary she is presenting is a construct that relies on emotional and potentially unreliable testimonies. So begins an extraordinary work that is both an intellectual examination into the nature of how cinema represents reality as well as a deeply moving personal project.

The narrative of Stories We Tell unfolds in a manner so that the audience discover the scope of the film, in terms of subject matter and critical discourse, as the film progresses. Even in the early stages of the film it is not precisely clear what specific story from Polley’s past will be explored. During the opening sequence introducing the family members preparing to be filmed, Polley repeatedly cuts to archival footage of a woman from a past era who is also preparing to speak into camera. Before too long we learn what we suspected, which is that this woman is a notable person absent from the family members Polley is interviewing: this woman is Polley’s mother and the subject of Stories We Tell.

Polley’s film uncovers significant revelations about her family’s history in relation to her mother. Accounts from the interviewees differ not so much in factual detail, but in terms of the weight in which they give to details and how those details are interpreted. Most fascinating is Polley’s father and throughout the film she includes both an interview with him and excerpts from him reading a prepared statement where he refers to himself in the third person. At times the accounts are deeply personal with Polley’s father acknowledging that he was not an ideal husband and her siblings pondering the sex lives of their parents. There are several scenes where Polley captures her brothers and sisters, possibly for the first time, realising and articulating their awareness that their parents were human beings with sexual and emotional needs.

While the mystery of Polley’s mother drives the film forward, her investigative process into her family’s history creates a discussion about the nature of storytelling, particularly in terms of how it applies to documentary. The film includes a quote from Margaret Atwood that says, ‘When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.’ As the film demonstrates this confusion is a natural outcome when the story is based on real life experiences because unlike a constructed narrative, these are stories that do not have a natural beginning, middle and end. The Atwood quote concludes by saying, ‘It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.’ It is the telling of the story that places the events into context  in a way that makes sense.

Some of the participants, especially those with the strongest emotional ties to what Polley uncovers, challenge the validity of the film. These are people who are clearly very close and affectionate toward Polley, so their challenges are more philosophical than personal, but nevertheless they raise fascinating issues that Polley incorporates within the film. For example, how much weight should Polley give to the various versions of the stories she hears? Equal weight does not equal the truth because some accounts are going to be more reliable than others so how can Polley evaluate the worth of every account? And what is more reliable – accounts that are emotionally removed and therefore regarded as objective or the more personal accounts? One participant argues that the core story uncovered in the film belongs to them more than anybody else – how should Polley present that perspective? How much should Polley interrogate her own motives in making the film and should she confront the probability that she has concealed her motivations for making the film, even from herself?

Is Stories We Tell about bringing somebody back to life by capturing memories of them? This is a possibility considering Polley’s accomplished 2006 narrative film Away from Her, about how a marriage is redefined when the wife begins to lose her memory as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe Stories We Tell is in part Polley’s attempt to reconcile the dynamics of her parent’s relationships? This is also a distinct possibility considering the themes of her uneven yet in hindsight deeply personal 2011 film Take This Waltz. Is Stories We Tell just Polley’s quest for her own identity? Or is the film more an examination of the way we tell stories and the way we attempt to take ownership over particular stories?

A further element to consider is the inclusion of Super 8 archival footage, and then later reveals in the film about the nature of some of that footage. In many ways Stories We Tell recalls the cinematic tricky of Orson Welles’s 1975 documentary/film essay F for Fake about the nature of authenticity. However, while F for Fake is arguably more a skilfully constructed statement, the ‘trickery’ in Stories We Tell feels more like part of an on-going dialogue with the audience about the nature of how we experience ‘truth’ in cinema. In this way Polley’s film has more in common with Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliant 2010 narrative film Certified Copy, which successfully demonstrates that even reproductions, re-enactments and artificial representations of reality can be truthful and authentic. After all, the very nature of cinema is deceptive and manipulative, but that does not stop it from containing real emotional and intellectual power. In films like Stories We Tell that power is made all the more profound by the very fact that the film acknowledges and works with its artificiality. The cinematic magic is more pronounced when all the tricks are being exposed.

Stories We Tell is a remarkably accomplishment film by a deeply talented and courageous filmmaker. Despite – or because of – all the questioning and exposing of the mechanics of documenting the past, the results are a heartfelt tribute to family and personal identity. And yet it never feels indulgent; if anything Stories We Tell is an extremely generous film where Polley allows her personal experiences to be used in a way that allows the audience an opportunity for personal reflection and introspection into their own family and identity. The story is specific to Polley and those that know her, but the meaning and ‘truth’ of what those stories mean resonates far beyond the scope of film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

River of Life and Death: Women, Religion, Power and Purity in Water

12 February 2013
Water: Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam)

Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam)

Water is the third and most accomplished film in director Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, which consists of three films that are thematically linked together rather than being films with an ongoing story and reoccurring characters. Water is set in 1938 in the holy city of Varanasi, which is situated in India on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred river in the Hindu religion. The film is unusual for having three protagonists – Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam), Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) – all of whom are widows. Due to very conservative interpretations of Hinduism, the three women are expected to live the remainder of their lives in poverty and chastity in a segregated temple with other widows from the area. As widows they are regarded as spiritually unclean and an economic burden on their families and society.

In the background to their stories is the beginning of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s campaign to drive the British out of India and establish an independent India movement through non-violence. The hope and progressive thinking that Gandhi introduced into Indian society provides a stark contrast to the sad and oppressive lives that the widows must endure. Through the lives of the three main characters, Water exposes and comments on the appalling treatment of widowed women in some parts of India, since even today the attitudes that are depicted in the film in the 1930s still exist. It also uses the treatment of the widows to represent larger issues about how religion is misused by people in a position of power to deny human rights.

While specific colours dominate all the Element Trilogy films, the use of white and blue in Water is especially important in the way the film engages with notions of purity. In the context of the film white is both the colour of mourning and traditional notions of purity. This makes it a particularly oppressive colour since the widows do live a death-like existence due to religious instruction to remain chaste out of respect for their deceased husbands. This concept of purity is aligned in the film with religious hypocrisy designed to keep the widows subservient since doing otherwise would mean caring for them properly and therefore having to spend money.

Blue is the colour of water, which has the power to give life and to take it away. Furthermore, in Hindi water represents feelings, intuition and imagination, which are all characteristics that are traditionally associated with femininity. This is appropriate since the film is about women and the way women are expected to behave. However, when removed from the motif of water, the colour blue is used in Water to challenges the dogmatic representation of purity as self-denial and obedience. Rather than following a set of social and religious rules designed by people in power, expressions of true love and compassion are presented in Water as true moments of purity and these moments are evocatively associated with the colour blue.

Deepa Mehta and the Elements Trilogy

Deepa Mehta was born in India, but migrated to Canada in her early twenties. Her films draw upon both western cinematic traditions and Indian customs to pursue a feminist ethical agenda. She explores power structures in Indian society, both historical and contemporary, to critique the inequality created through gender discrimination, religious hypocrisy and class. Mehta first received international prominence in 1996 with the release of her critically acclaimed and highly controversial Fire, which was the first film in the Elements Trilogy. The same-sex relationship themes caused considerable unrest from many conservative religious groups and political parties that even resulted in a cinema being burnt down. The hostility towards Mehta from groups within India meant that production for Water was shut down in 2000 when protestors destroyed the sets the night before shooting began. Mehta had to relocate production from the banks of the Ganges in India to Pakistan and the film could not commence shooting until 2005.

The common themes in all the films in the Elements Trilogy are religion being misused for political purposes, women being made subordinate, the oppression of female desire and forbidden love. In Fire the forbidden love is between two women and Mehta explores the politics of sexuality not just between the same-sex couple, but within the dynamics of two passionless arranged marriages. The second film in the trilogy is Earth (1998) set in 1947 during the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. It was a time of enormous religious tension between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims as 12.5 million people were displaced as geographical divisions were formed based on religious demographics. The nature of forbidden love explored in Earth is between a man and woman with different religions, with Mehta exploring the politics of nationalism and how this can manifest in religious extremism and violence. In Water the forbidden love is the widow Kalyani falling in love with another man, which is seen to be an act of betrayal against her dead husband. Mehta explores the politics of religion to highlight how religious hypocrisy is used to ensure women are undermined and made subservient for economic purposes.


The first of the three protagonists in Water is Chuyia, a child who has become a widow as a result of an arranged marriage to a man she never met. At the beginning of the film she is presented as something of a free and rebellious spirit despite the absurdity and unfairness of the situation she is placed in. Happily eating a sugar cane she is introduced gleefully playing with the feet of her dying husband as he is being transported. It is not until the reality of having to live in the widow’s temple sinks in that she displays any actual signs of grief and the contrast between her colourful and decorative clothes to the white robes she is forced to wear is very pronounced. However, even once in the temple Chuyia stands out as a force of life with her head painted by Shakuntala in bright yellow turmeric and the flurry of quick edits as she runs through the temple, providing a playful and disruptive break to the static and slow camera movements that are otherwise used within the temple.

The sense of playfulness within Chuyia is expressed throughout the film through her constant movement and the movement of the camera during many of the scenes she is featured in. Her catatonic stillness during the film’s conclusion is therefore devastating to witness. What happens to Chuyia comments on the dual symbolism of the Ganges in the film to purify and to take away life. While the Ganges is the site for purification for Hindu people, it is also the passage to the upper class homes where Chuyia is tricked into prostitution. It is fitting that Chuyia’s escape from Varanasi is in the arms of Narayan (John Abraham), whose father has committed so much damage, and by train. While water is traditionally a symbol of change and progression, in Water the Ganges ultimately becomes like institutionalised religion – a destructive force that destroys lives while continuing the pretence of being about purity. The train on the other hand is a force of modernity and progress that takes Chuyia and Narayan into Gandhi’s new India and away from the oppressive traditions and abuses of power in Varanasi.


Chuyia isn’t the only character who is harmed by the Ganges as Kalyani is literally killed by it when she drowns herself after being denied marriage to Narayan, ironically by his father who had been using Kalyani as a prostitute before turning on Chuyia. Throughout Water Kalyani is compared to Chuyia as an older version of the woman Chuyia may have become if she stayed in Varanasi. Kalyani is also a widow who was married to a man she never met and she was being prostituted by Madhumati (Manorama), the exploitive older widow who runs the temple. When Kalyani’s long hair is cut off by Madhumati, who presumably only allowed Kalyani to grow it long in the first place to appear attractive as a prostitute, the scene mirrors the earlier scene when Chuyia’s hair is cut before she enters the temple. The graphic matches establish the strong relationship between Kalyani and Chuyia, and the danger of Chuyia sharing the same fate.

Kalyani’s religious devotion is important to note as being different from the misuse of religious rhetoric that is seen throughout the film. Mehta is not attacking religion in Water but critiquing the way it is used for economic and political gain. Kalyani’s faith and charity represents religion in its purest and most noble sense. She compares herself to a lotus flower, which is a divine symbol in ancient Asian traditions representing the virtues of sexual purity and non-attachment. When Kalyani first appears in the film she is shot from a low angle so she majestically appears above the rest of the temple. Chuyia even momentarily thinks that she is an angel. Kalyani is also shot from a similar low angle during the various scenes with Narayan, although scenes when she is in the temple and he is on the street are often framed so she appears behind the bars on the balcony to give the impression of her being imprisoned.

Kalyani is also strongly associated with the colour blue and says when she remarries she will wear blue, the colour of Krishna. Blue is not only a colour commonly used to represent water, but in the film is the colour of life and associated with characters during moments of spiritual transformation. The very romantic sequence when Kalyani sneaks out to be with Narayan features a heavy use of blue light and blue backgrounds to indicate the purity, in the true sense, of the love that has developed between the pair. In this way blue is used in the film to symbolise falling in love as an act of spiritual transformation. The other major use of the colour blue for a moment of spiritual transformation is associated with Shakuntala in the moment when she follows her conscience despite it so significantly conflicting with her religious beliefs.


The moment when Shakuntala is bathed in a blue light is when she directly stands up to Madhumati to free Kalyani. Up until that moment Shakuntala had been an enigmatic character. She is another widow at the temple, somehow above Madhumati’s authority but until this moment had never directly challenged her. Even more so than Kalyani, Shakuntala displays a sincere devotion to her faith that frequently manifests through her taking on a nurturing role with some of the other widows including Chuyia and Kalyani. While something of a peripheral character during most of the film, which focuses on Kalyani through the eyes of Chuyia, Shakuntala emerges as the final protagonist when she directly confronts the religious rhetoric that she has been living by to make sure Chuyia leaves Varanasi so that she won’t be abused again.

Towards the end of the film, possibly as a result of witnessing what was happening to Kalyani and Chuyia, Shakuntala begins questioning her faith. This culminates in the scene when she confronts the priest Sadananda (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) about the scriptures concerning widows. A sympathetic character, Sadananda explains that the relevant scriptures do list a life of self denial as one of the options for widows, along with being burned with her husband or marrying the husband’s younger brother. However, he also reveals that there are now new laws in favour of remarriage, but religious groups have ignored these laws since the laws do not suit them. This is a crucial scene in the film since it directly addresses the danger of religion having too much power and influence to the extent that it can bypass the law for its own end. It also exposes how religious beliefs can be hijacked to serve the needs of people in a position of authority.

Water concludes with Shakuntala performing an extreme act of kindness, generosity and sacrifice by saving Chuyia from the widow’s temple and Madhumati’s clutches. The audience are not completely certain about what Shakuntala’s risks by doing this, but it is a reasonable assumption that by defying Madhumati and the local customs Shakuntala will at the very least be cast out of the temple to fend for herself in an environment hostile towards widows. Her act of defiance is also one of religious defiance against a set of powerful beliefs she had lived with her entire life.

It is significant that Shakuntala takes Chuyia away from the Ganges, and all it represents, to the train and other symbols of progress. Not only is Ghandi, who is on the train, a symbol of the future but he speaks into a microphone, which represents new modes of mass communication that would allow messages such as his to travel further than they ever had before. As a member of the new generation of Indian people, Chuyia has a chance to reap the rewards of these changes so ‘escapes’ on the train with Narayan who by accepting the responsibility of looking after her is somewhat redeemed from his previous passivity and inaction. On the other hand, Shakuntala is left behind, with the train receding into the background, as she is trapped in an old way of life. Water ends with the arresting and provocative image of Shakuntala starring into the camera in a mixture of sorrow, hope, despair, uncertainty and defiance. Her bold glare into the camera could even be read as a challenge to the audience to confront the injustices within their own lives.

Originally published in issue 64 (Summer 2012) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Incendies (2010)

28 April 2011
Incendies: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal)

Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal)

A slow fade up on a serene shot of the desert gradually pulls back to reveal a room full of armed men shaving the heads of young boys who are literally being groomed to become soldiers. As the evocative song ‘You and Whose Army?’ by Radiohead swells on the soundtrack one of the boys glares directly into the camera to create an extraordinarily arresting opening image. This boy is not a character who features much throughout the film but the significance of who he is and what he does will impact upon the lives of all the characters whose lives are about to unfold.

This French Canadian film by writer/director Denis Villeneuve, adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, is about identity and the links between the past and the present. One half of the film’s dual narrative structure is the present day story about Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) attempting to learn the truth about her recently deceased mother’s background. The second narrative strand in Incendies is about Jeanne’s mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), and her experiences as a young woman living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during a time of violent conflict.

Incendies: Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

Incendies very successfully explores the residual effect of past trauma on contemporary lives. As one character comments, ‘Death is never the end of the story. It leaves traces.’ There are several moments in the film when Jeanne is warned about finding out too much and she even experiences prejudices that are still being kept alive as a result of her mother’s legacy. Ultimately the case is made for the need to reconcile with the past even if the process is painful and Incendies effectively argues that this is necessary so that contemporary generations can break the cycle of violence that has plagued their predecessors.

The decision to not name the specific Middle Eastern country that Nawal comes from allows issues associated with religious conflict to be explored without causing offence or trivialising much broader issues. Instead, it is enough to know that the violence being done in the name of religion results in atrocities against human rights such as honour killings, genocide, torture and sexual violence. Incendies is a film about how people are affected by violence rather than being a film attempting to explore the cause and nature of that violence.

Incendies: Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

It is to the extraordinary credit of Villeneuve how well the various acts of violence are presented on screen without feeling exploitative or compromised. Villeneuve is extremely careful and sensitive about what gets shown on screen, what gets shown from a distance and what occurs off-screen. Some incidents happen suddenly and with a horrifying casualness while some are built up to with considerable dread without the camera revelling in explicit details of suffering or degradation. Sound, editing and camera placement are skilfully harnessed to ensure that the impact of various moments are felt without turning the scenes into morbid spectacle.

Incendies is a tough film but a sensitive one that never feels like an ordeal to watch. It ingeniously dispenses information to the audience and the characters at different times in a way that facilitates its most significant revelations in the most powerful ways possible. A degree of coincidence does come into play with this film, but it is there to serve the grand narrative that evolves throughout. In this way the story and its characters are archetypes representing generational differences between a generation who lived during a time of peace and a generation who lived through war.  Most importantly, it establishes the power that contemporary generations have to facilitate the healing process for events that occurred before their time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Splice (2009)

16 August 2010

SpliceYou know that you’re in for a wild ride when the film begins with a point-of-view shot of a genetically synthesised organism being born in the world. The ‘parents’ of this manufactured life form are Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) and Clive Nicoli (Adrian Brody), a hipster scientist couple widely celebrated for their research in gene splicing. When their work is threatened they covertly cross the forbidden ethical and legal barrier to include human DNA in one of their experiments. The result is the creation of a new creature they name Dren. As she rapidly grows, matures and goes through puberty, Elsa and Clive are confronted with their conflicting ideas of her as an experiment, a surrogate child and a sexually aware being.

Splice is not a David Cronenberg film but it comes closer to capturing the sensibility of Cronenberg’s films from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s than anything Cronenberg himself has done in the past decade. From Shivers to The Fly to eXistenZ, the films of the Canadian auteur have explored ideas of science kick-starting evolution, sexual transgressions and bodily horror with a distinctive flair for visceral gore and pitch-black humour. All of these elements flourish in writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice; a glorious blend of science-fiction, horror, melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller.

Splice: Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley)

Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley)

Previously best known for his 1997 low budget science-fiction thriller Cube, in Splice Natali demonstrates how well he can work with big budgets, known actors and challenging material. Splice is at times genuinely frightening with early scenes evoking the unknown terror of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. The uncanny strangeness of the infant Dren also strongly recalls the nightmarish ‘baby’ in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The concept of mechanically reproduced life and the film’s perverse representation of ‘child birth’ are confronting and taboo breaking, and in Splice Natali does everything that he can to make the audience squirm, tremble and laugh in a mixture of disgust, dread and wicked delight.

Underpinning the stylish production values and moments of shock are strong characters and engaging writing. What holds your attention throughout Splice is the changing sympathies you constantly have for Elsa, Clive and Dren as they all constantly shift from positions of being the aggressors to being the victims. Splice is science-fiction/horror at its best, underpinning its daring moments of bodily horror and sexual anxieties with flawed characters to care about and moral issues to wrestle with.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Blindness (2008)

15 March 2009
The Doctor's Wife (Julianne Moore)

The Doctor's Wife (Julianne Moore)

Blindness is an adaptation of a 1995 novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Essay on Blindness) by the Nobel-laureate novelist, playwright and journalist José Saramago. The film adaptation is a Canadian/Brazilian/Japanese co-production by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and written by the Canadian actor/writer/director Don McKellar. McKellar also appears in the film with a truly impressive cast that includes Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael García Bernal. In Blindness a highly contagious condition causes an epidemic of blindness, resulting in the government quarantining all the victims in an abandoned hospital. The victims are given no outside assistance and are left to fend for themselves and decide how they will organise themselves. When a group of men from one ward decide to take control of the food supplies, the quarantined victims of the blinding “white sickness” develop a tribal mentality and things start to get nasty.

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Film review – Away from Her (2006)

16 October 2007

Writer and director Sarah Polley adapted Away From Her from a short story by Alice Munro specifically for Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago and more recently Finding Neverland). Christie is astonishing as Fiona, a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, as is her co-star Gordon Pinsent (The Good Shepard) who as her husband Grant must first send her to an institution and then cope with the fact that she develops feelings for another patient.

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25 February 2002

An annotation for the Melbourne Cinémathèque

In 1975 David Cronenberg assaulted audiences with Shivers, his third feature, introducing many of the interests and themes that would preoccupy his subsequent films. These themes include an exploration of the relationship between humans and technology, a fascination with the fragility and mutability of the human body, and the radical possibilities of transcending evolution by using science to drastically alter our bodies and minds.

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