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Stories We Tell

May 18, 2013
Stories We Tell

I make no secret that a big part of my love of movies is really about a love of storytelling, and some of my favorite movies are those that, like Rashōmon, directly interrogate the ideas of memory and storytelling themselves. Filmmaker Sarah Polley takes her crack at it in a documentary format with Stories We Tell. It’s an object lesson, built around her own family’s multifarious story about her own birth, and it’s fair to wonder if the philosophy really drives the inquiries, or if it’s more of an excuse to allow her to work out her family psychodramas at our expense. I think the concept is genuine, but it still manages to present more questions than answers. And even after seeing it I’m not entirely certain what we’ve seen.

The story — specifically, my quick recap of the story for purposes of a review, presented to an audience who I cannot assume to have already heard it and for whom I do not want to spoil the story as Polley presents it — goes something like this: Sarah Polley was the youngest of five children born to her mother, Diane. Two (John and Susy) were born to her first husband; two (Joanna and Mark) were born to her second husband, actor Michael Polley; and Sarah was possibly born to someone with whom Diane had had an affair while acting in the play Toronto in Montreal, away from her husband and children in Toronto. That’s sort of the mystery.

Diane died when Sarah was 11, and the older children were soon out of the house, leaving Sarah alone with her father. People noted that they didn’t resemble each other very closely; they’d joke about who her real father might be. But when she was 18 the story started to come out. And eventually it was going to become more and more public, but which version would come out? In a sense, the film is an attempt to put everything on the table.

It’s largely structured as a documentary, with contemporary interviews of the surviving family and friends attempting to get at what each of them understand to be the case, from when Diane and Michael met through to her death. This is intercut with lots of old, grainy home video, and narrated — in a sense — by Michael himself.

Which narration starts to point to how complicated the whole idea of telling all the stories really is: Michael is recording the narration as a voice-over, reading from a long letter he wrote to Sarah as he started to come to grips with the truth. But at the beginning we see Sarah presenting him with the script which she has presumably edited from his original letter. Whose version, exactly, is he reading? The audio recording is itself being filmed, with cameras in both the audio booth and the engineer’s booth recording both Michael and Sarah, and we see her interrupt occasionally, asking for another reading of a line. She’s clearly massaging the transcription from Michael’s printed words to his spoken voice in places; does that make a difference?

It would be easy for those who don’t really think much about film to forget that after shooting lots of raw footage a film is edited, and the Kuleshov effect shows that editing is itself a subtle and yet powerful form of storytelling. Polley, as the filmmaker, gets to decide what gets in, what gets out, and what order things come in. Framing is another powerful tool: we only get to see what Polley wants us to see, and she can make us see almost anything.

Am I being an overly-suspicious critic here? no, I don’t think so, because Polley herself raises these questions. One interviewee makes the point about editing, and Polley leaves his comments quite prominently in. She also includes hints for the attentive viewer that she may not have been as lucky as it would seem when it came to the family’s treasure trove of home movies. There is no reason to call her own narrative — which exists only in as far as she’s made the film, since she is never herself directly interviewed — into question in the third act, except to highlight the fact that we may not, in fact, be able to take what has gone before at face value.

I do not want to go so far as to claim that “the story” — whatever coherent narrative can be assembled from the separate accounts — has been made up from whole cloth. I do want to raise the point that this is, technically, a possibility.

I also want to point out that either way it makes no real difference, at least as far as this story goes. It’s no real business of mine who Sarah Polley’s biological father was, nor is it of anyone else outside of the Polley family and maybe their close friends. Certain facts about her mother’s life are almost certainly true; Sarah seems to have mined some pieces of them before for Away from Her and Take This Waltz. But for the most part the story hides its secrets under a veneer of absolute candor, just as one interviewee claims Diane would do.

In sabotaging her own documentary illusions, Polley takes a decisive step towards honest inquiry into the nature of storytelling. And she reminds us to question all of our stories: those we hear, and those we tell.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

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