When words fail us, how can film help fill in the gaps?

In The Mother of All Lies, Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir and her father create a handmade replica of their village in Casablanca. Bringing together her family and neighbours, El Moudir confronts the layers of deception and intentional forgetting that shaped her past through exquisite re-enactments, in an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, recovery and catharsis. 

Ahead of its release at Bertha DocHouse this Friday, we explore other genre-bending documentaries that use innovative filmmaking and storytelling techniques to address the unspeakable. 

Four Daughters / dir. Kaouther Ben Hania / France, Tunisia, Germany, Saudi Arabia / 2023

Joint winner of Best Documentary at Cannes 2023 (alongside The Mother of All Lies), this formally inventive hybrid film centres on Tunisian woman Olfa and her four daughters.

When Olfa’s two eldest daughters go missing, director Kaouther Ben Hania enlists professional actors alongside the real family members to re-enact scenes from the girls’ childhoods that built towards their disappearance. As genuine connections form between the actors and the sisters, the boundaries between reality and fiction blur. Growing up in a household that valued silence and secrets over openness, the presence of the camera and the additional layer of performance enable the younger sisters and Olfa to express things that might have otherwise remained unspoken.

Through this remarkable narrative mechanism, Four Daughters progresses toward a sense of reconciliation, offering a powerful portrait of five women.

Four Daughters is available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and YouTube,

The Missing Picture / dir. Rithy Panh / Cambodia, France / 2013

In this extraordinary film, Rithy Panh uses clay figurines, archive footage and his own memories to depict the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

With little to no images of life in Cambodia during this time, Panh’s handcrafted scenes act as a chilling reminder of the horrors committed under Pol Pot’s murderous regime, a poignant tribute to those erased from the history books, and a way for Panh to work through his own childhood memories.

The figurine dioramas not only fill a gap in the materials needed to explore the story, but also serve as a powerful way to address the enormity of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge through their tiny, detailed, and intricate designs.

The Missing Picture is available to watch on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play and YouTube.

The Missing Picture is about the cathartic power of confronting the darkest corners of human experience through film.

Sight and Sound

Stories We Tell / dir. Sarah Polley / Canada / 2012

Perhaps better known for her Oscar-winning narrative film, Women Talking, Canadian director Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell deserves equal acclaim. Playing with the documentary form to explore the nature of memory and storytelling, this is a stunning, heartfelt tribute to her mother Diane, who died when Polley was 11.

The film features interviews with Diane’s close family and friends, including Polley’s father and siblings, interwoven with home movie footage and recreated Super 8 footage of Diane played by an actress. The reconstructed footage blends with the ‘real’ footage, only revealed when Polley is shown directing the actors. This technique reflects the fragmented nature of memory, exposing the gap between our real and imagined recollections.

Stories We Tell is available to watch on Apple TV, Curzon Home Cinema, Google Play and YouTube.

Sarah Polley's innovative, heartfelt documentary about her mother is a thoughtful exercise in the mechanics of storytelling.

Little White Lies

The Act of Killing / dir. Joshua Oppenheimer / Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, UK / 2012

Joshua Oppenheimer’s much-acclaimed The Act of Killing confronts the atrocities of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66 by engaging the perpetrators in a surreal re-enactment of their murders, in the style of American films they love. This bold approach transforms the documentary into a haunting exploration of memory, guilt and impunity.

By allowing these killers to dramatise their violent pasts, Oppenheimer exposes the grotesque pride they take in their actions, but also the deep psychological scars left on both victims and perpetrators. Through its chilling narrative form, the film challenges audiences to confront the harrowing realities of genocide and the difficulty of relating the unspeakable.

Watch our masterclass with Oppenheimer here.

The Act of Killing is available to watch on Apple TV, Curzon Home Cinema and Google Play.