Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) – Searching for the Truth
Written by Jocelyn Illing
As filmmaker Sarah Polley contemplates the act of storytelling, and the different truths it reveals, she is shown flipping through old photo-albums. The film then cuts to a grainy and tinted home-movie showing her family at dinner. The camera shakes as it moves from face to face, catching everyone in a private moment, be it whispering to each other or biting their thumb. It is the next shot that changes the course of the film. We see the same scene, only now without the orange tint. The camera jitters again, and eventually pans to the left, revealing Polley and her camera operator directing the scene. It is during this point that we, as viewers, learn that much of the home-video “footage” that we have been watching throughout the film was not archival at all, but rather products of re-enactment. This is where 17-year-old first-year student me had her mind-blown upon first viewing. Stories We Tell challenges the notion of truth and documentary by blending techniques in a way that satisfies both the viewer’s hunger for the “truth” and desire for drama and excitement.
What Stories We Tell is exactly about is a question that is pondered throughout the film. Is it a story about truth? A story about memory? A story of a daughter searching for answers about her parents? In its simplest form, the film follows the director as she interviews her family and friends about her recently deceased mother, Diane. She then uses this opportunity to search for answers surrounding the rumours that her father, Michael, is not her real father, something that her siblings had teased her about since she was a young girl. The film then becomes a story about Polley meeting her biological father, Harry, and her contemplation about, and difficulty with, breaking the news to Michael.
The film most strongly relates to both the participatory and the reflexive modes of documentary. Polley is an active participant in the film, both as an interviewer and a subject. Her film centres around the act of storytelling, the ways in which the people who knew her mother talk about her in different ways, and how these stories evolve over time. Unlike some documentaries where we cannot see or hear the interviewer ask the questions, Polley can often be heard directly addressing her subjects, and often makes an appearance during these interviews. The fact that the subjects are people that she knows, or that her mother knows, strengthens the connection between filmmaker and subject, thus demonstrating a strong sense of investment. Stories We Tell is also very reflexive. Throughout the film we watch as Polley constructs its form, be it recording narration with Michael or directing her actors while shooting a re-enactment. Additionally, the subjects in the film constantly talk about the documentary and about the notion of storytelling and truth.
As I first stated in the introduction, Polley’s use of re-enactment within her film is where much of its power lies. It is the reveal of this technique that causes the viewer to begin to question the truths of the film and the reliability of the documentary form. This resistance is multi-layered, for we do not only begin to question the mode of filmmaking itself but also the subjects within the film and the stories they have told. Polley’s use of re-enactment is in the style of a realist dramatization, with images on screen mirroring the verbal storytelling. For example, as Harry describes the night he met Diane at a bar, we watch as actors, who look strikingly like the people they are portraying, re-create this scene. The graininess of the image and use of filters work towards making these images seem like real home-movie footage. The beginning of the film further tricks us into believing that the footage is real when Michael recalls bringing a Super-8 camera along on their honeymoon. Because we know that the honeymoon footage is legitimate, and that Diane and Michael were artsy people, we cannot help but assume, or wish to believe, that the other footage in the film is equally authentic. Although viewers, including me, might feel cheated learning that these scenes are rehearsed, it is important to think of them not as the truth, but rather as sequences that provide a visual connection to the stories being told.
Through its mixing of interviews, home-movie footage and re-enactment, along with its commentary on the modes of documentary filmmaking, Stories We Tell tackles many of the questions regarding documentary and the truth. Through its use of re-enactment, the film both blurs the line between fact and fiction and makes us think about what we define to be the truth. Towards the end of the film, when responding to Polley’s question regarding his thoughts on the making of the film, Harry explains how it is impossible to find the truth, for the truth is subjective, differing in terms of who is telling it. To him, the film then is not about finding the truth but, as he says, documenting “different reactions to particular events”.
It is important to note that Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is not just a film about truth and documentary filmmaking. What is equally compelling is both the way in which the film provides its subjects with the opportunity to talk about Diane, and how it causes the viewer to think about their own family. It is an extremely emotional and personal work that is able to connect with audiences through its scenes of vulnerability and joy. In addition, the film, not surprisingly from its title, provides the viewer with a great story. We begin with the story of Diane, pulling at our heartstrings with recounts of her life from her loved ones, and are then pulled into the history of the filmmaker’s biological father. The film puts you on an emotional roller-coaster, both in terms of narrative and style, that is both frustrating and thrilling. Tissues not required but strongly recommended. Rating: 5/5 Stars