Stories We Tell was the best documentary to play Sundance this year, and this past weekend it finally hit theaters. Anyone lucky enough to live near one of the theaters playing the film most assuredly needs to seek it out. It’s one of the few truly unique movies to come along in a while. Sarah Polley balances heartfelt personal reflection and intellectual meta-commentary on the nature of filmmaking so effortlessly – it’s beautiful to watch.
One particular aspect of the doc fascinated me when I first viewed it. There has been much discussion around the “twist” in the film’s story, which revolves around Polley’s true parentage. But there’s another “twist” in the film, one that has to do with the nature of documentary storytelling, and which ties in wonderfully with the ideas Polley is exploring.
Like most docs, Stories We Tell features a great number of stock footage. In this case, home movies from the Polley family crop up constantly. As people discuss events from the 60’s, 70’s, and beyond and before, relevant visuals play on the screen. Polley’s mother, Diane, exists only in this past-tense form, as she died years ago. These clips illustrate the memories that the various speakers are recalling. It seems like typical documentary style.
But at the end of the film, as Polley is musing on how we constantly have to re-interpret how we think of the past, we see the same old clips again. Except this time we see film crews with the subjects… and Polley interacting with them. And in case you haven’t already twigged to it, a good deal of these home movies are in fact artificial, made for this documentary.
This stunned me on my first viewing. On my second, I felt like an idiot, because the true nature of the footage is readily apparent. Polley isn’t playing a trick on the audience – any attentive viewer will spot that the visuals are far too convenient. Why would so much footage exist of Diane cavorting with the man with whom she had an affair, as just one of many examples? In case it seems too subtle, though, there are times where the reconstruction is blatantly obvious. The words that people speak line up exactly with the voice-over of their reminisces. This should be the tip-off, but it wasn’t on my first viewing, because I was so enraptured by the film that I didn’t consider that, if these portions weren’t real, others might also not be.
I felt especially foolish later when I attended a Sundance panel that included Polley, during which she pointed out that the actress who plays her mother is actually pretty well-known in Canada. She most assuredly did not construct the doc as having any kind of a twist – and yet it can still play that way.
Anyone who watches enough documentaries grows adjusted to a certain set of unstated rules. There’s always a degree of trust between filmmaker and audience – after all, we can only take it on their word that they are depicting the true events they have chosen to document in a way which they believe to be accurate. One of these “rules” is that what we see is real, unless otherwise specified. Even when Errol Morris merely stretched this rule with clearly-identified reenactment sections in The Thin Blue Line, he caused huge controversy. So anyone beholden to this idea might be outraged with Polley.
But of course, it’s impossible to fully capture the truth – the best a filmmaker can do is present it as they see fit. That’s why the best (I believe) definition of the documentary is “reality, creatively interpreted.” That creativity takes many licenses, most of which go unnoticed by the moviegoing public. The truth is that there’s a lot of artifice in even the most standard doc. It’s there from the deliberate juxtapositions made in editing to entire shots staged solely for the camera. It’s in every nonfiction film, and you’ll only notice if you stop and think about how it would have been possible to capture certain things on camera with such luck.
Moviemaking, of course, is all about ensuring that the audience does not notice the artifice. The fatal underestimation too many people make of documentaries is that these techniques are absent in the form. Far from it – they are what make movies such a fantastically affecting art form. What Polley does here is manipulate while showing the manipulation at the same time. It’s the dishonesty of artistry and full disclosure at the same time.
Stories We Tell is all about the truth, and how slippery it is. By the end, the film acknowledges that no one knows the full story. Some of the details will go forever unsaid. Some of them died with their participants. I originally described the film as an epistolary novel combined with an investigation combined with midsummer family conversation. Polley gives a better description in the opening minutes: it’s an interrogation. And it turns out to be one that never quite arrives at the answer that it’s looking for.
But, through conversations with friends and family, she reconstructs something like the truth, which is the best that we can hope for. And thus, it’s fully fitting that the movie has so much literal reconstruction in it. It also means that the reenactments carry a poignance like the technique never has before. In the end, this is a movie Sarah Polley made about her mother, and the approximations of her mother’s life that she presents for us brings her alive again in a way that mere home movies or descriptions from interviews never could.
One of the best moments in the film is a long segment of silence, as Polley’s brothers and sisters each sit and think about Diane, each of them struggling against tears. It’s devastating, and the degree of empathy the movie has created with them magnifies that grief to the point where it feels like you’re also remembering lost family. Perhaps a viewer will even mentally insert their own loved one into that hole, and truly experience the same sense of loss. This is what documentaries are for. This is what the form can do at it’s best. It’s why I very strongly doubt there will be a better documentary than Stories We Tell this year.