(Awards season) At the Movies: Revisiting recent Oscar snubs

  • Stories We Tell for Best Documentary Feature and Sarah Polley for Best Director

Reality simply consists of different points of view

– Margaret Atwood

If you ever wanted to see that quote adapted for the screen, all you’d have to do is watch Stories We Tell, a 2012 Canadian documentary film written and directed by Sarah Polley. The film is a memoir that explores her family’s secrets, including one intimately related to Polley’s own identity. A big success in the festival circuit, the film received glowing reviews after its theatrical release, was a fixture on many critics’ end-of-year top 10 lists and was shortlisted for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but was left out in the end.

While Stories We Tell‘s status an intelligent, acclaimed documentary that benefits from a smart, layered narrative which unfolds like a mystery should have been enough to gather it an Oscar nod, it must also be noted it is important for its historical significance. Considered a pioneer of the personal essay style documentary movement, it doesn’t settle on one dominant narrative, but explores the personal aspect of storytelling and the multiple truths of multiple stories seen through the eyes of the storyteller, emphasising the importance of the combination of said stories to come closest to the truth. It’s the proof that the heart and soul of this type of documentary is the personal investigation and the passion of its maker. It explores the subjectivity of memory in a very compelling way, too: up until the end, all of the intervieews are polishing and footnoting their versions the story, sometimes for reasons of defensiveness or vanity or something else, sometimes just because they’ve thought of one more thing they still need to say. While 2012 was a year with really fine Best Documentary nominees, none of them were as innovative and technically relevant as Stories We Tell, both in regards to the way they are written or the way they were shot.

To tell the story, Polley employed a maze of interviews, home movies and faux home movies cast with actors. She knew exactly how to direct the story, employed some interesting, creative filming techniques and got the best out of her interviewees, as well as the actors who participated in the faux home movies. Usually, I find recreations in documentaries to be eye-rolling, but Polley made them work. You don’t even understand they’re faux for quite a while. And all I wrote above should be a worthy explanation of why I’m asking myself “Why the hell wasn’t Sarah Polley nominated for Best Director”? After all, she directed one of the most acclaimed films of 2012. After all, she directed one of the most innovative documentaries of all time. After all, she would’ve been great company for Ang Lee, Michael Haneke, Steven Spielberg, David O. Russell and Benh Zeitlin.

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2 thoughts on “(Awards season) At the Movies: Revisiting recent Oscar snubs

  1. Good call, and a very good film. A bit of a departure for Cronenberg, but excellent to see how he allowed the plot to develop through actors talking to each other, trusting their body language and the things they said to keep it going instead of inter-cutting with superfluous action scenes e.g. some visual representation of their dreams.

    As for Keira Knightley, she really did shine in it. Quite something to come out of a film starring Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as the most memorable performance, but then she stole it with the development of her character, the facial and bodily contortions in the early scenes of her hysteria blending into controlled poise, whilst the emotions are writ just as large.

    A shame about the Oscars snub, though in fairness I think the voting process within the Academy often has so little to do with the best work and performances that who gets it is rendered meaningless. This was the year that Meryl Streep won it for playing Margaret Thatcher, wasn’t it? Not a bad impersonation, not a patch on this, but then it’s Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. It was a shoo-in.

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  2. There’s no denying there’s some real issues at the moment with the awards. And as you pointed out – it’s not just BLACK or WHITE. I had this discussion with a friend earlier about race and cinema. The idea of a black James Bond. Fair enough, but…what about an Indian James Bond? Or Hispanic? Or Asian? The awards highlight such issues even more, focusing so much on race….in many ways when clearly it should just be a case of the winner goes to ….whoever was the best, so open up the flood gates and start to recognize more films and talent from all over the planet. It’s mad isn’t it?

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