The last few years have seen more attention being paid to female directors. Whether it’s multiple theaters having retrospectives honoring Dorothy Arzner, the latest triumph from Ava DuVernay, or exciting debuts from artists such as Nia DaCosta and Mati Diop, women in the film industry are slowly but surely getting some of the recognition they should have always received for telling their stories.
Most of the directors I named are narrative filmmakers. But there is just as exciting work being done by women in the field of documentary films. This mode of filmmaking gives female directors a unique opportunity. If they choose, they can use the documentary genre to tell stories from their lives in a manner that lets the audience know what they are seeing is a true story in a way that a narrative film cannot. They can use this method of filmmaking to reclaim control of their stories from men who seek to control them and discover their own strength in the process.
This desire by women to tell their own story in the face of male interest in them animates two excellent documentaries, Stories We Tell and Shirkers. This desire is not the only similarity that these films share. They both feature the directors, Sarah Polley and Sandi Tan respectively, as the protagonists. They both use Brechtian distancing effects — the presence of film equipment in shots, off-screen audio of Polley and Tan asking their subjects questions — to remind the audience that they are watching a movie. Most importantly, they both feature their real-life protagonists going on a search to document the truth of an important series of events from their pasts in the face of a desire by men to tell their stories.
Stories We Tell features Polley constructing the true history of her parentage. At a certain point in the film, she reveals that the initial seeds for this film were planted when a male reporter, who had learned about her story, asked if he could tell it. Feeling pressured, she refused, and sought to tell the story in her own way.
One of the fascinating things about this documentary is how far Polley goes to minimize her voice. Large portions of the film consist of people credited as “Storytellers,” which includes her relatives and friends of her parents, telling the story of Polley’s family and how she discovered the identity of her biological father. Polley eventually explains her desire to get everyone’s perspective in the documentary when she reads some letters in voice-over, but her overall presence in the film is that of a silent yet dominant one. She does not get her power from telling her story directly, as she would in an interview for a newspaper article, but from arranging the stories of others in a manner that is pleasing to her.
In contrast to Polley’s polyphonic storytelling, Shirkers (one of my favorite documentaries of all time) is primarily a first-person documentary told from Tan’s point-of-view. It features a lot of voice-over from Tan over archival footage as she tells the story of her efforts to make a feature film when she was 19, only for her sinister mentor Georges Cardona to steal the footage. This gives the film an immediacy and a passion that it would not have if someone else had done the narration.
At the same time, Tan is unafraid to include perspectives that run counter to hers or include information that she did not have access to at the time. Most entertainingly, she interviews her old friend Jasmine Ng, who keeps correcting Tan and at some points calls Tan’s younger self an asshole. This reminds us how vulnerable stories can be to the erasing power of memory and perspective. In addition, an interview with her collaborator Sharon Siddique that reveals how Cardona forced her to let him be in a meeting she set up instead of her is a reminder of the lengths men will go to control women to maintain their power.
Stories We Tell and Shirkers are both powerful films in any historical context. But in our current historical moment, which includes a recent article further corroborating Deborah Ramirez’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, they are vital reminders of the importance of women telling their stories. I hope to see more films such as these as women directors get more of the opportunities that they have deserved for a very long time.
Stories We Tell will be shown at the IU Cinema on September 30 as part of the series Running the Screen: Directed by Women, The Rashōmon Effect, and Themester 2019: Remembering and Forgetting.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.