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film fatales #21: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

How long does one have to wait before spoilers are no longer an issue? Stories We Tell is more than four years old, but part of me is still squeamish about revealing anything crucial. Suffice to say, there will be spoilers, and this is a movie where the less you know going in, the more you will get from it.

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

Polley isn’t exactly offering a cast of unreliable narrators. But each of the interviewees (“storytellers”, they are called in the credits) gives the truth as they remember it, in many cases admitting that they aren’t sure their memories can be trusted. One person says that only people who were there can tell a story, and if one of them has passed away, as Polley’s mother did, we have to take the survivors’ word as true. He is at least open about his desire to make his truth into the truth. But Polley suggests that we all do this, that life is partly about turning our truth into the truth. Since Stories We Tell features the remembrances of so many people, the truth can’t be found. It isn’t cumulative ... we can’t just toss all of the stories into a salad bowl.

Polley is behind the camera ... she is the interviewer. She is the one trying to find the truth, and at first it seems she stands outside of the collective attempt to remember. But the film is hers ... more than one interviewee asks her pointedly why she is making the film, what she hopes to accomplish. She wants to turn the truth into her truth, but her methods prevent her from ever grasping “the truth” ... in fact, watching Stories We Tell, we despair of ever being able to grasp.

The one person who can’t tell her story is Polley’s dead mother, Diane. Perhaps for this reason, she is the center of the story ... all of the living offer their memories of her. Polley supplements this with home movies ... it would seem the Polley family took a lot of movies in their day, and as people talk about Diane, we see her acting as they remember. Mostly, we see her love of life, and love of fun. The stories and the movies make a powerful team ... the stories may be full of subjective experience, but the movies show how things “really” were.

Polley saves her knockout blow for the closing credits. At least that’s how it was for me ... I’m sure some people figured out Polley’s trick before I did. As the credits get to the actors, we see the various interviewees, all as the aforementioned “storytellers”. Then, suddenly, we see a list of actors playing other people. “Rebecca Jenkins: Diane Polley.” As this list went on (“Eric Hanson: Mark Polley, age 11”), the realization that the “home movies” were staged puts the finishing touch on Polley’s examination of documentary truth. We have reflexively assumed the movies were the objective counterpart to the subjective storytellers. Now we find that those movies are subjective reconstructions.

This does not feel like a cheat. On the contrary, with the revelation that Polley used “fake” home movies, we are forced into a further understanding of Polley’s theme. The storytellers weren’t the only ones trying to pass off their truths as the truth ... Polley herself turns out to be the biggest storyteller of them all. #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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