If documentary films are designed to tell real stories, two upcoming ones, “Dirty Wars” and “Stories We Tell,” take the genre to its limits, if not beyond them.
“Dirty Wars” will play next week on Wednesday, July 3, at Chilmark’s Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. “Stories We Tell” will be shown at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven on Friday, June 28, Saturday, June 29, and Tuesday, July 2.
“Dirty Wars” examines the U.S.’s covert war against terrorism using drones, through the eyes of journalist Jeremy Scahill. The film was not available for pre-screening, but all reports from other reviewers indicate that “Dirty Wars” unfolds more like a thriller than a conventional documentary. The national security correspondent for The Nation magazine, Mr. Scahill is the author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” and his film, directed by journalist Rick Rowley, does not pretend to deliver two sides of the story.
The Joint Special Operations Command, which was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden, has conducted 1,700 secret raids in Afghanistan alone. Mr. Scahill tracks this top-secret military agency’s operations in Yemen and Somalia as well. His curiosity about nighttime raids in Afghanistan that American correspondents do not cover leads to his discovery that two pregnant women killed in one of these operations were not victims of “honor” killings as reported, but collateral damage of an American attack.
President Obama’s acknowledgement in May that the U.S. was responsible for the death of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his son corroborates some of the evidence collected in this disturbing documentary, pegged as “not-to-be-missed” by many film reviewers.
In the case of “Stories We Tell,” which interviews members of Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s family about her late mother, Diane, it’s hard to understand what the director is up to. Ms. Polley uses many of the conventions used in documentaries to reinforce the notion that what the audience will see comes from real life. We observe the director at a sound mixing console and watch family members as they settle into seats to be interviewed. Graphics identify the names of interviewees, although not what their place – if any – in the family is. We see inserted what look like archival family video scenes.
Clues do appear along the way that all may not be as purported. Ms. Polley’s putative dad stands at a lectern reading from a script, and the director occasionally asks him to repeat lines. The narrative does not follow a linear pattern but jumps back and forth in time as different people reminisce about Diane.
Revelations emerge unexpectedly – sometimes more in the fashion of a fictional story than a documentary. The cast of characters expands, often in confusing ways, as everyone has their say about who Diane Polley was, whom she really loved, and, for that matter, what this documentary is about. The word “love” is bandied about as if everyone in the family agrees on what it means.
Ultimately, “Stories We Tell” uncovers many layers of the assumptions we make about memory, reality, even the function of film. Viewers may be left with the question of whether Ms. Polley should be calling her work a documentary or an anti-documentary. Whatever the conclusion, “Stories We Tell” will provoke questions and thought.
“Dirty Wars,” 8 pm, Wednesday, July 3, Chilmark Community Center. $15; $7 M.V. Film Festival members. For reservations and more information, including schedule for preceding children’s Cinema Circus, visit tmvff.org.
“Stories We Tell,” 7:30 pm, Friday, June 28; Saturday, June 29; Tuesday, June 2. M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $7 M.V. Film Society members. For reservations and more information, including schedule for other films, visit mvfilmsociety.com.