STORIES WE TELL and LIV & INGMAR
Cinema, by its very nature, is voyeuristic. We sit in the darkness and delve into peoples’ lives––in turn emerging from the imagination of others––and sometimes make an immediate connection with them like no other art form can achieve on a similar scale. But what happens when, instead of mining for inspiration in the outside world or within their fertile minds, filmmakers and/or actors turn the camera around and examine their own lives with, what may be described as, subjective detachment?
Two fascinating documentaries screened at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival did just this with equally satisfying results. The first, Stories We Tell, is a film by Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley who discovered a few years ago that her father, Michael Polley, is in fact not her biological parent and that she was born out of wedlock when her actress mother Diane Polley had a relationship with another man while she was in Toronto for a play in the late ‘70s.
What started off as playful banter on the part of her four half siblings who often joked that she looked nothing like her father, led eventually to this shocking and potentially damaging revelation that took her on a painful journey of self-discovery. Interestingly, the story is narrated by Michael Polley at a recording studio, with impassive-faced Sarah sitting on the mixing table asking him to retake lines from time to time, which he obligingly does.
Various players in the drama of her life, including all her half siblings, her biological father and friends of her mother (Diane herself died when Sarah was just 11) speak of the episode that led to Sarah’s birth. But the most energising presence is Diane herself, seen in extensive home videos that Michael shot of their life together and through clever recreations which blend seamlessly with the old recordings and footage from theatre and television appearances.
Sarah describes how, a call from a journalist in 2007 threatening to print the story finally brought her face-to-face with the inevitability of this scandalous exposé and its possible impact on the lives of those involved. For, up to that point, although she had learnt the truth and verified it too, she hadn’t shared it with Michael and didn’t want him to find out through the papers.
Apart from the obviously strong bonding between Polley and her siblings (born of three different fathers, as we learn) and the candour of virtually everyone involved, the greatest take away is Michael’s assessment of his relationship with Diane––his inadequacies as a husband and her desire to break free from their stifling marriage. Interestingly, one of the fallouts of the revelation was that in subsequent months, Sarah and her two sisters divorced their respective spouses!
As for Michael, instead of turning bitter about a betrayal he only discovered several years after his wife’s death, he took to writing about it, leading to self-awareness that can only come with agonising introspection. A process each of the principal players involved, including Sarah and her biological father too went through and out of their collective rumination the film was born––as much a narrative about the basic human need to tell stories, the diversity of points-of-view, and the gaps that remain despite an honest attempt to tell it like it is––as it is a deeply personal film about one woman’s search for the truth about her life.
Dheeraj Akolkar’s Liv and Ingmar puts two legendary artists, Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman under the microscope. Like in Polley’s film, one of the protagonists, Bergman, is not around to tell his story. But the ravishing Ullmann who spent just two days filming the interview on the island of Farö in Sweden where she once lived with Bergman, doesn’t speculate on his version of the story and is refreshingly candid about hers.
Mapping their tumultuous yet fulfilling relationship over the course of 42 years, Akolkar divides his documentary into different phases of love––from the first flush when they were filming Persona and Bergman (46) was smitten by his leading lady (25). The structure of the film mirrors the patterns of any long-term relationship––love, possessiveness, anger, longing, acceptance and finally, friendship.
That Bergman and Ullmann were exceptional artists and their professional association fed off their personal bond resulting in some of the greatest cinema of all time is what makes their story unique. Akolkar understands how much Bergman drew from his own experiences and skilfully intersperses Ullmann’s narrative with clips from several of his films in which she acted (12 in all), with Bergman regulars Max Von Sydow and Erland Josephson as stand-ins for the filmmaker.
Ullmann recalls how she was once a happy person, but after five years of living with Bergman had transformed into a depressed, neurotic woman and knew that she had to get away from him. This wasn’t long after the birth of their daughter Linn. Although she did leave the island and both of them moved on in their respective lives and she came back to work with him over and over again, they never really parted ways properly and before long, their relationship had metamorphosed into a strong friendship.
Although she doesn’t flinch while dwelling on the suffocation and the violence she experienced, she puts it behind, blazing blue eyes shining into the camera, lips firmly asserting, “You have to let it go”. Akolkar often frames her in tight close-ups, as Bergman himself did, letting her face establish its own equation with the camera and the spectator beyond. It works magnificently, because the truth of her experiences and her feelings makes an immediate connection. As does the sparse but tasteful house they shared, the rocks and grasses beyond and finally the deep blue sea which witnessed a fascinating love story.
So that, even as Ullmann runs her hand wistfully over the white door on which she and Bergman scribbled hearts and pictorial notes to each other that are fast fading in the sun, and pragmatically acknowledges that everything will eventually end including herself, fragmented memories of a grand affair shall remain. And so will the residue of that passion and obsession which resulted in wondrous cinema.