If you haven’t see this film I urge you to do so before reading this post. I try and avoid knowing much about a film before I see it and in the case of Stories We Tell I think ignorance is crucial to our appreciation of Sarah Polley’s artistry. Before the spoilers, in brief: the film is an investigation into who is actually director Sarah Polley’s father and this is told, mostly, with a mixture of home movie footage and talking heads.
At the start we see Polley, at a sound mixing desk, instructing her father as he starts the narrative voice over of the film. He’s reading a script and refers to himself in the third person. Immediately Polley has set up, in a self-reflexive way, that she is in control of the documentary. Although her father is narrating a story in which he is a key participant (is he her biological father?), the fact he’s reading from a script under his daughter’s direction makes it clear she’s the boss.
One of her siblings says, early in the documentary, ‘why would anyone be interested in our family?’ I was inclined to agree as the only thing that was remarkable was the enormous amount of home movie footage used to partially illustrate the narration and interviews. However, Polley’s parents were theatrical so maybe that wasn’t so surprising.
Polley’s pursuit of the truth soon becomes an engaging narrative and the film works as a (sort of) documentary family melodrama but it also gradually becomes clear that what we’re seeing isn’t quite what we think it is.
It’s amusing to watch montages of the talking heads, who are also participants in the story, contradicting one another when asked the same question. They are not obviously being medacious as our understanding of events, particularly within families, are often diverging. There is a hilarious moment when Polley asks an ex-colleague of her mother’s if they’d slept together; his denial is entirely undermined by his eyes’ leap to the right.
At her mother’s funeral, she died at a relatively early age from cancer when Polley was 11, there is a home movie shot of her real father sitting at the back of the church. Why would anyone, ignoring the question of whether a home movie would be made at a funeral, pick out him in this particular framing?! My first thought was Polley must have digitally edited the shot to enhance the appearance of her real father for dramatic purposes. However by now I’d also noticed that the voice over narration (by her biological father) had slipped into the first person, so emphasising subjectivity. When had that happened?
I will have to watch will film again to unpick the way Polley playfully undermines our faith in both the sound and vision of what she is presenting. It’s likely that the clues are present much earlier than when I noticed: she’s obviously questioning the ontological status of the documentary form as well as telling a story about her family. This formal uncertainty complements the uncertainty about her familial relationships.
The credits are the giveaway that some of the ‘home movies’ are in fact pastiches of the form performed by actors; I didn’t notice the difference between the real and unreal home movies, probably because I wasn’t looking for it.
Peter Bradshaw makes an excellent point that it’s possible that Polley’s motivation in making the film was to pre-empt her real father’s memoir about her parentage. Polley was determined to get her version of the story told but, at least, she is clear that it is a version and not reality.
As a documentary, this is a tour de force and one of the films of the year.