Friday, March 01, 2013

True/False 2013, Day One: Traveler's Tales

The True/False film festival especially values films that question the very nature of truth and fiction. It's right there in the name of the festival, of course, but you don't really begin to get a feel for this until you've sat through a couple of years of festivals. This predilection for films of and about epistemological murk is surely the reason that Sarah Polley's new film, a documentary about the nature of her family, was chosen to open the proceedings this year. Stories We Tell (2012) has an instinctive grasp of the shaky nature of truth. It's a film that embraces the Rashomon effect. And, it turns out, the filmmakers aren't to be trusted to tell the truth with the camera itself. At first, the film seems like a repurposing of Polley's home movies. There's a bunch of interview material with the various members of Polley's family and the form of the film takes a familiar shape: interviews plus archival materials. The subject of the interviews is Polley's mother and the circumstances of her parentage, which is perceived differently by her siblings, her father, and the people who knew her mother. But Polley is crafty here. The archival material, the footage that looks to be old 8mm home movies, is faked. Her mother is played in a lot of this footage by an actress. This is a film about film as much as it is about family secrets. The signature image is of Polley herself pointing a camera at the camera. There is no fourth wall here. The screen is permeable and the reality on the screen flows easily into the reality beyond the screen and vice versa.

On the surface, Polley is exerting a lot of hubris in making a film about her own family, but she knows a good story when she sees one and she has considerable chops when it comes to telling it. Her story IS compelling, filled as it is with secrets and uncomfortable relationships and surprising twists. It doesn't hurt that her interviewees are charming and garrulous, though each of them is obviously remembering different versions of events. There are a lot of characters in this, and one begins to see the point raised by Diane Polley's paramour when he says that having all of those points of view will distort and dilute what is "true." He's right, of course, but he's wrong, too, if he believes that any one point of view is any more objective than any other. The fallibility of memory is a theme built into the very structure of the film. We aren't seeing memories when the camera looks back at footage of Diane Polley. We're seeing a reconstruction of memory.

The final effect of Stories We Tell is similar to how Jorge Luis Borges once described Citizen Kane. It's a labyrinth that ultimately has no center. As in Kane, there's a central figure in this film around whom everyone else orbits and reacts, but who is also a gaping void. The film is denied Diane Polley's voice and point of view. The rest is all the ripples left in her wake.

Dirty Wars (2013, directed by Rick Rowley) is a chilling account of America's increasing reliance on covert warfare. Like many of the documentaries being made about the so-called War on Terror, this one presents a reality that is very different from what is portrayed in corporate media. The film follows journalist Jeremy Scahill, a correspondent for The Nation magazine, who, frustrated with the canned reporting via military press release, heads out of the green zone in Afghanistan to take a first hand look at the aftermath of a night raid on the family of an Afghan police commissioner. He finds that what he has been told by the military--that this was a raid by the Taliban--is completely false. This family was raided by covert American special forces, who, mysteriously, took the time to dig their bullets out of the men and women they killed. Why would they do that? The answer is far-reaching, as Cahill begins to detect a pattern to night time raids in Afghanistan, and then beyond Afghanistan in places that are not active war zones. The trail leads him to JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, a paramilitary strike force that apparently has no oversight from the US Congress, and which reports only to the President of the United States himself.

The form of this film is recognizable to any student of film history: it plays out first as a film noir narrative, with Cahill's voice-over narration casting him as a world-weary detective, then later as a conspiracy thriller. It's all reportage, mind you, but there's an overarching paranoia at work. As well there should be. This is a film about shadowy organizations who in the late stages of Yankee military adventurism have had their powers greatly expanded outside the bounds of oversight. It's one thing to be targeting Al Qaeda and missing because of bad intelligence--that's the fog of war for you. It's quite another to be engaging in the targeted assassinations of United States citizens without trial or recourse to justice. This is one of the central erosions of the United States' dedication to freedom and the rule of law. The drone program that has been in the news lately is an arm of JSOC, and it's coming soon to the United States itself. The lessons of Dirty Wars should terrify all sides of the body politic at that news. All I could think while I was watching this film was that the corridors of power in Washington and the Pentagon have stared too long into the abyss. They have become what they seek to destroy.

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