For her third feature as director, Toronto-based actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) has chosen to focus on her parents, telling their remarkable story through interviews with family members and friends, as well as employing archive footage and Super-8 reconstructions. Stories We Tell is released this week on DVD and Blu-ray by Curzon Film World. BEV scribe Sonia Zadurian takes an in-depth look…
“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion… It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” – Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Beginning with these words, writer-director Sarah Polley’s 2013 documentary paints a complex portrait of her mother, Canadian actress and casting director Diane Polley. Creating a vivid tapestry of archive footage, interviews, recorded narration and dramatic reconstructions based on real events, the film goes on to tell the intriguing tale of Sarah’s parentage, attempting to unravel a tangle of conflicting information in order to grasp at the elusive truth of the situation.
After writing and directing the fictional features Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), Stories We Tell sees the actor turned filmmaker venture into documentary for the first time, which makes this assured piece all the more remarkable. A fiercely personal work, it attempts to excavate a Polley family secret that could easily have remained hidden, were it not for Sarah’s boundless pursuit of the truth. The film features interviews with those who knew Diane, alongside a frank voiceover from Sarah’s father Michael, in which he recounts details of their lives before and after his wife’s death in 1990. Barely appearing herself, Sarah instead turns the camera on her family to question the truth and reliability of memory, storytelling and documentary.
The wide variety of forms used delicately illustrate how we remember. Unlike conventional storytelling, which usually operates in linear form, the film works like the human mind: piecing together fragments of interviews, archive footage and dramatic reconstructions in an attempt to construct the bigger picture. These fragments also illustrate the unreliability of memory, as archive footage is blended seamlessly with the reconstructions. The nature of these staged sections is only revealed much later, prompting the viewer to question the validity of everything that they have been shown.
At this moment, the pitfalls of storytelling are also addressed, as the film highlights the creativity involved in the telling. Just before this reveal, Sarah’s voiceover states: “Many of our stories end up with shifts and fictions in them, mostly unintended.” The camera then peels back to reveal Sarah and her crew directing the action. Throughout the film, the viewer has a particular scene set for them through the words of the interviewees, as they recount memories or state opinions regarding a particular time or place. The audience are then presented with staged images, directed by Sarah, which lend themselves to these stories.
After the voiceover, the reveal of these reconstructions opens up all kinds of questions for the audience, the most pressing of which concern which images were real and which were fake. This highlights a key difficulty for the human memory, which impacts upon the way we tell stories. As we create images in our minds from tales we may have been told, we can later become confused as to our imagined memories and the ones we have actually lived through. In attempting to tell the Polley family story, Sarah highlights the importance of perspective in creating a full picture – and the contradictions that this can often cause.
These issues inevitably also raise questions regarding the validity of documentary film. These are implied throughout Stories We Tell, particularly at moments when archive images are repeated several times, with each repetition backed by a different voiceover. As the audio imbues the images with new meaning, the viewer’s assessment of a situation can be altered and they are reminded of the capability of the medium to so easily manipulate an audience. The issue of truth in documentary is later explicitly addressed by several of the interviewees, with Sarah’s father in particular voicing his concerns regarding the editing of Sarah’s footage. Michael touches upon the power of the editor, stating that allowing an interview to run in its entirety “would have at least been as close to the truth as you can get”.
Stories We Tell takes a relatively simple series of events and weaves them into a fascinating tale which becomes more intriguing and more engaging in the telling. Rather than take one perspective, the director attempts to form a bigger picture by layering the memories and opinions of several people. In doing so, her film becomes an extraordinary exploration into the reliability of memory, the importance of perspective in storytelling, and the issue of truth in documentary.