Reclaiming the ownership of the story – Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (Blog #5)

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is an example of a first-person reflexive documentary which chronicles the reclamation of her story of origin through stories being told by her family and biological father. Unlike the traditional documentary form, Sarah is the subject of the film she is directing and has a key role both behind and in front of the camera.

Her pursuit of knowledge is part of the adventure that the stories take us on as she interviews her siblings, her ‘father’, her potential father, and her biological father. They recount stories about Sarah’s mother, Diane, who passed away when Sarah was 11 and try to figure out who Sarah’s father really is.

In an interview on CBC’s Q, Polley says that she wanted to create a film about storytelling, but didn’t intend for herself to be the subject. She did not want to accept the different perspectives she was hearing on the same story, so she tried to compile all of the stories into one place and see what overlapped and how she could piece together information about her late mother.

When she says, “we can’t all be right and we can’t all be wrong. So we must be unintentionally distorting things to varying degrees in order to feed our own version of what we need the past and history to be, and in our way, we must all be telling the truth as well”, the audience realizes that all of the participants are telling what they remember to be true, and that each story helps to put together the real origin story. Sarah says in her interview that her biological father originally wanted to tell this story, but that this was Sarah’s story to tell. The nature of the film is informal because she is interviewing relatives and people close to her mother rather than interviewing strangers. “Because the film was so much about storytelling and how stories are constructed, it would have felt really false to me to leave out the fact that I was constructing this story — and that this, in itself, was very subjective” – Sarah’s involvement in her film makes the documentary a subjective decision that she was able to manipulate and create a final product that she thought best reflected the story that she was able to gain authority over throughout her extended interview process. It is also subjective because the stories of Sarah’s mother cannot be qualified by Diane herself. When Sarah interviews her siblings and father candidates, the wall comes down and true feelings are made visible which changes the way she interacts with these people that she considers to be her family.

The fact that her brother thought something was off because Sarah looked different and that he knew about the affair his mother had affects the relationship that these siblings have. Sarah’s research process ends up with her discovery of information that was withheld from her or that she thought was said in a joking manner.

Is this a gif of Diane Polley? Or is this a gif of an actress? No one will ever know…

The inclusion of genuine and fabricated home videos is a film technique that Polley uses to blur the line between fact and fiction while providing visuals that mislead the audience. These fabricated videos affect the way that the audience is able to respond to the events in the film because she is tricking those who are unaware of whether or not the images and clues are accurate.

Sarah’s sister asks why anyone would care about their family and why this film-making process was necessary. So many cultures share stories and rely on oral tradition to keep stories and subjects alive – by documenting all of these stories, not only does Sarah find answers about who she is (and who she almost wasn’t), but she is able to connect with her mother and keep her mother’s spirit alive. Just because the Polley family story isn’t the same as our own stories, the realism of sharing memories and perceptions allow complete strangers to feel a connection and sense of accomplishment when Sarah learns the truth about her biological father.


Why I became the running joke at Passover Seders… another situation of being Lost in Translation

I was telling my family about all the films we watch in screen acting at my family’s Passover Seder and I told him about our screening of Lost in Translation.

While screening the film, I was fixed on the idea of Orientalism and the way in which the film took place in Tokyo, but didn’t really display any Japanese culture, traditions, or key characters. The love story that takes place between the middle aged white man and young, blonde, white woman that just happen to be in Japan. The Japanese hospitality is still present, but the film pokes fun at the stereotypes that are typically associated with Japanese people and culture. According to King’s article, ‘Yoshio Tsuchiya called the film “stereotypical and discriminatory”; the writer Kotaro Sawaki noted that the Japanese characters “are consistently portrayed as foolish.”’

This is one of the few scenes where Bill Murray interacts with a non-white character and it’s a farce because he is essentially making fun of this poor elderly person.

The white people (Bob and Charlotte) are idolized and waited on (and it’s not just because they are in a hotel for many scenes) and are easily identifiable in a crowd as being an “other” because they physically look different and come from a different place with different values.  Basically, this love story could have taken place ANYWHERE and the location and culture are pushed to the back burner.

the relationship is exhilarating and exciting…

I was really disappointed seeing this film for the first time because I was hoping that maybe the relationship would be between a white person and an Asian person who have to learn about each other’s cultures and actually face challenges in developing a relationship. This didn’t happen though, leaving the two middle-upper class white people to physically represent the “American” ideal person as portrayed in the media.

Back to my Seder story: my uncle asked me what I thought of the movie and if I enjoyed the ending. I told him my thoughts on the portrayal of the Asian people and my disappointment but, in all the business of crunch time at school and preparing for the meal at my house, I couldn’t remember the ending of the movie. When I set an opinion of something (like a movie) early on, I tend to pay less attention or not remember the details or sequence of what happens. This turned into me being a running joke of not being able to remember how things end. My older brother asked me, “How can you not remember the ending of Lost in Translation? It’s ICONIC! I saw that movie in theatres and how can you not remember the ending?”

I could tell them exactly how Lunch Box ended, but that’s because it was fresher in my mind and Lost in Translation just didn’t make as much of an impact on me.

The rest of the family dinner resulted in jokes like, “Lindsay, you don’t need to finish your meal because you won’t remember what it tasted like…” or “Don’t bother asking the fourth question (from the four questions you ask about why Passover is different than any other night) because you won’t remember anyways…” and I was defensive because I knew that the film didn’t have a clear ending, I just couldn’t remember what it was.

this could literally be happening ANYWHERE.

So today I decided to re-watch the ending. Bill Murray getting out of the cab, running after Scarlett Johansson and whispering in her ear and then they part ways. This has the same ambiguous type of ending as Lunch Box, which we watched last Monday, but because it was just another American love story, Lost in Translation didn’t really stick with me or speak to me in any way. Because I wasn’t romanticizing or feeling a connection to the relationship between Bob and Charlotte, the ending (and the entirety of the film) kind of lost me in translation.

Finding Context for Smoke Signals in Sherman Alexie’s Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Over the course of this school year, I’ve noticed that the courses that I am taking are overlapping and allowing me to see the same topics from a social science, humanities, and theatrical/film perspective. I recently read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven which is an anthology of short stories that have given Alexie the opportunity to create a  genre of his own – reservation realism. I had a very difficult time reading these short stories because of the connection that I made to the film and the need to giggle every time I saw Victor’s name in print (thanks to Thomas’ repetitiveness in Smoke Signals). 

After reading the short story that was the basis of Smoke Signals, I realized how powerful Alexie’s original story is and identified how the film adaptation was more of a parody of indigenous culture than the original written text. In the short story, This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas tells Victor about the rapport he had developed with his father and that his generosity and insistence on joining him on his journey was because of a promise made to Victor’s father that Thomas would always have Victor’s back.

When Thomas and Victor are on the bus ride to Phoenix in the film, Victor tries to teach Thomas how to ‘act like an Indian’ which doesn’t accomplish much for Thomas when he realizes that “the cowboys always win…”. In the text, Thomas and Victor fly next to a former Olympic gymnast and Thomas acknowledges the gymnast’s complaints about the government boycott of the Olympic team in 1980 by saying, “Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians” (Alexie, 67). These characters try to develop relationships with non-Indians and find common bonds, but poking fun at the similarities seemed to be too real and not well received by the gymnast.

The parallels between the text and the film both include the ways in which Victor does not go out of his way to be Thomas’ friend. A passage in the book reflects the stereotypes that we place on indigenous peoples and how Alexie tries to address these stigmas throughout his text: “Victor was ashamed of himself. Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams. He owed Thomas something, anything” (Alexie, 74). Storytelling and community are two important elements of indigenous culture and this text and film prove to take the storytelling to a meta level. 

When we talked about comedy, we said that a true comedian is able to poke fun at themselves and acknowledge their flaws – by telling the stories from the Spokane reservation, Alexie pokes fun at his characters and culture in a way that raises awareness and allowed Hollywood to take these stereotypes and run with them. Although the way Hollywood portrays indigenous peoples tends to be terribly inaccurate and, although no one should intentionally poke fun at another culture, Alexie’s text and manuscript for Smoke Signals is a light-hearted way to get a perspective of the adventures of the two characters and the journeys that they partake in physically, mentally and emotionally.

A Fictional Story is One Step Closer to Digging into the Horrors of the Past (Blog #4)

Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) is defined by director, Jeff Barnaby, as a revenge fantasy and an “unflinching fictional account of Indigenous agency in the face of the horrors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools” (Carleton, 1). The film is a fictional portrayal of Aila, a young artistic girl who is able to avoid the assimilationist Residential School by selling drugs and paying a ‘truancy tax’. Like individuals who are taken away to the Residential Schools, Aila was raised parentless after her mother killed her brother, committed suicide, and her father was imprisoned. She was forced to grow up quickly and take care of the adults who are supposed to be taking care of her (namely her uncle and grandmother figure who fronts the grow-op).

It is estimated that over 100,000 aboriginal children were forced to attend Residential Schools – children were stripped from their families, their culture and their individual identities.

Although Residential Schools are talked about today, no one realizes that these schools didn’t close completely until the late 1990’s and individuals who were able to escape were left with physical and emotional scars. By providing a visual of the “tragic past” that would have been experienced by survivors, Barnaby gives the audience a fictional perspective into “a generation that know no parents” (Barnaby). It is extremely difficult to watch the scenes inside the school because it is difficult for us to acknowledge the poor living conditions and lack of safety that existed not so long ago in Canada.

This film unsettles the history of the fictional Mi’gmaq Red Crow reserve and depicts the effects of the development of the Indian Act. The way that Barnaby portrays the characters in the film are as drunks and drug dealers, which reinforces a stereotype about Indians. Many people identify the heavy drinking and drug use as a coping mechanism, which becomes “the art of forgetfulness” (Carleton, 2). Once a window leading into the horrors of the school experience is created through film and media, it is easier to grasp why Aboriginals must find ways to cope with the abuse that they faced for so many years during colonialism. When Aila is forced to go into St. Dymphna’s after her money is stolen and she is unable to continue paying the ‘truancy tax’, she is aggressively told by Popper that, “from here on in, it’s the Queen’s fucking English. Relish it!” and is stripped of her long braids, her clothes, and her self-esteem as she is thrown into a dark cell (3).

When words fail, art speaks – this is how Aila and many other Aboriginal peoples were able to pass their stories down when oral tradition was not an option.

Films that portray aboriginals in a hyperrealistic way rarely depict the aboriginal peoples fighting back against the white Europeans. Carleton mentions Frantz Fanon who states that “decolonization occurs as a result of a colonized person’s realization that the ‘deployment of violence,’ in different forms, is often crucial for liberation” (4). When Aila, Joseph and the rest of her posse break into the school to steal her money, they sneak around and try to hurt Popper in order to liberate themselves from the torture that he has placed on Aila and Joseph. Once Aila and Joseph are out of the school and Popper tries to rape Aila and kill her father, Joseph picks up the gun and shoots Popper in the head.

This moment was extremely disturbing, yet so powerful – Joseph does not speak a lot in the film, but it becomes evident that the only way for him to seek out revenge on the man who put him through so much violence was to reciprocate the violence. This fighting back is not something that happens in every situation and makes a statement as to how this young boy will grow up and perceive the world around him, especially the white Europeans who he may eventually have to interact with.

My perception of the Residential School system has always been very vague – I learned about what happened in school, but I never realized until this year how abusive and poisionous the system was. In my Health Controversies course, we learned about the poor health conditions that led a lot of aboriginals to become very ill while in the school systems and the lack of medical access that Aboriginal people had on reserves and how little access they still have today. We see that the reserve is very secluded in the film, and the only institutions that are heavily present are the police and the church via the Residential Schools.

I think that films like Rhymes for Young Ghouls are so important to help educate our generation of proud Canadians who are unaware of the horrible things that happened in the past. Although the story is fictional, the lives of so many people that had first-hand experiences are far from fiction and the only way to truly educate ourselves is to engage in the stories and share them to ensure that history never repeats itself. Canada needs to stop denying that we have evolved from these absolute horrors to the diverse, multicultural embracing of cultures that we experience in today’s society.

Royal Canadian Air Farce takes on the Franklin Expedition

This year on Air Farce’s New Year’s Eve special (which I attended a taping for and it was a great experience), the first sketch was about finding Captain Franklin of the Franklin Expedition that we talked about today in lecture (and about how our favourite PM took credit for finding the wreckage while the Aboriginals knew almost exactly where it was).

It’s interesting to see how pop culture (and Canada’s legacy of sketch comedy) can make events relevant without talking about any of the knitty gritty details…

I’m not saying to watch the whole thing, but you can if you want. There aren’t enough audience panoramas to spot me in the crowd, but I was there for one night of filming.

Olive Hoover and Alana Thompson (Honey Boo Boo) aren’t so different after all (as told by a selection of GIFs)

When TLC began airing Toddlers and Tiaras, watching the girls get dolled up and the parents become maniacs became my guilty pleasure. I thought that these kids were hilarious while I thought deep down how horrified I would be if this pageant culture was part of my life.

I stopped watching T&T around the time when Miss Alana became the celebrity child with her own spin off, but it dawned on me that there are some parallels between Honey Boo Boo (let’s call her HBB) and Olive Hoover from Little Miss Sunshine.

Alana knows she might not fit the societal definition of beauty, but her confidence allows her to succeed:

HBB’s slight advantage is her mother’s knowledge of the pageant scene (but is it really an advantage?)

HBB drinks gogo juice

Olive eats ice cream:

HBB knows that she has more to flaunt than her peers and embraces her belly:

Olive eventually rocks her one piece:

At the end of the day, what matters is that they both have families who love and support their dreams of being professional dancers…

To look at some of the other popular T&T contestants, there is a spectrum that exists in the children’s engagement…

The girls who just want to be girls…

The girls who dream:

and the girls who are outright cray cray:

But we know that the apple can’t fall very far from the tree…

(What is the difference between Kayla twerking and Olive thrusting?)

Pageants teach girls that they will be rewarded for being conventionally pretty and that it is okay to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on dresses, fake nails/teeth/tans/butts, and “coaches”.

These should not be the role models for young girls… they need to be stopped…

These girls sum up my sentiments pretty well:

Then we see commercials like this which give me hope

As our wise friend Taystee from OITNB says:

“Inside every one of you, at the very core of your being, is a winner waiting to be awakened and unleashed upon the world.” ( The true success of the Hoover Family in “Little Miss Sunshine”) Blog #3

In Little Miss Sunshine, the ensemble cast (family) helps Olive learn about societal expectations of gender and femininity. Olive is influenced by the media in the form of the Miss America pageant and the child pageant trend that is infectious in the United States. Olive is depicted amongst the rest of her “dysfunctional” family (according to what the media tells us the all-American family should look like) as a happy-go-lucky girl who really wants to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, despite her lack of education about pageant culture and etiquette. The entire family represents the underdogs within their gender and age cohorts and they unite to face adversity together, along with their VW bus that, like its owners, can’t catch a break.

Olive does not fit the mould of a beauty pageant contestant and, although her mother selectively thinks that honesty is the best policy, is given the choice to participate in the pageant despite the negative opinions of the patriarchy in her family. Her father tries to hint at her that ice cream will make her fat but no one tells Olive about the cultural norm of being skinny or that it is okay to treat yourself in moderation.  Olive’s father and grandfather are the male influences that shape Olive’s understandings of patriarchal perceptions of women and her Electra complex tells her that she must present herself in a way in which her father will approve of.

It becomes evident that Richard’s plan of being a motivational speaker and encouraging everyone to be winners backfires and he becomes the loser that he tells his children not to be. Not only does Richard lose his attempt at success, he loses his father to heroin use, steals the carcass from the hospital and keeps driving his bus that requires a team of runners to get it started – his continuous failures may not make him laugh, but human nature tells us to laugh at other people’s misfortunes making Richard’s character a joke.

The family doesn’t seem to realize until they arrive at the hotel what the pageant entails and how the girls are being transformed and sexualized to represent femininity and pageantry. The family’s bubble bursts and they realize that they do not fit into the beauty pageant that society creates and that they need to choose whether to focus on fitting societal norms or to love what they do and embrace their quirks.

Gigek says that “fantasies are not just a private matter of individuals… [they] are the central stuff our ideologies are made of” which is evident in Olive’s fantasy of winning beauty pageants – she strives for acceptance from her family and society. Meanwhile, her ideology glasses are fogged up until she puts them on at the pageant and looks in the 360 degree mirror realizing that she doesn’t have the bikini ready body that the other girls have (and that she may have had a little too much ice cream). She overcomes this adversity by confidently walking on stage and strutting her stuff, despite the judging looks from the room.

The post-feminist framework ideology was reinforced in the film with the use of deadpan, farce, and gender failure. Both of these comedic traditions can be seen when Olive is on stage at the pageant. Keeping in mind that Olive was prepared for the pageant behind closed doors with her heroin using, uncensored grandfather, we expect that her performance will be uniquely different from the rest. When Olive looks around at the other participants at the pageant, she acknowledges that she is not like the other competitors. She chooses to participate wearing clothing that she loves (and her family does not represent themselves as able to afford fancy dresses and makeup application that others may take for granted). Olive’s confidence boost from Miss California’s shared joy of ice cream (or frozen yogurt) helps her continue to smile through the doubt from the other participants, judges and her family. Olive’s dance (choreographed by her beloved grandfather) pokes fun at what is expected to be performed at pageants and is overly sexualized, but Olive does not see what the judges and disgusted audience sees. She has worked hard to learn the dance and her family supports her by dancing on stage with her instead of pulling her off the stage– this deadpan scenario makes the judges think that Olive is making a farce out of the pageant (but really… these children are shaving their legs and spray tanning to look like dolls – isn’t this truly the farce?).





Although Olive’s desire is to win a crown, her family’s opportunity to bond and be kicked out of the pageant together allows them to fail and laugh together at the ridiculousness of their journey. We can appreciate that Olive chose to participate in a pageant by embracing who she is and not being sucked into the commodification of beauty and sexualisation of young girls.