Sarah Polley’s latest movie (I loved Away From Her, Julie Christie was transcendent!) is right up the Memoirous alley. One one level it is a young woman’s exploration of her own creation myth while on another level it is about how a talented director chooses to edit—what to leave in and what to take out of the story of her own life. The film is a mirror with many facets. It is also smoke and mirror—as a viewer we’re not sure what is real. Sort of in the same boat as Polley as she proceeded with this endlessly puzzling project.
Once again truth is a mystery and memory is only one part of the whole.
At one point in the film, toward the end, when we think (as a viewer) all of it has been told, there are no more revelations, her brother asks into the camera: What is this movie about? And Polley stumbles for a succinct answer. “It is about memory and how we tell the story of our life.” She goes on to relate that she chose to focus on the discrepancies, where each character in the film, in the play of her story/life/history tells their side, what they know for sure. Which doesn’t always jive with the last witness interviewed. She opines that truth is ephemeral, hard to pin down.
“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion...like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” These words by Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace) comprise the very first lines we hear in Stories We Tell, and they more or less sum up what is to come.
The film centers on Diane, Polley’s mother, an actress herself, who died when Polley was age 11. That’s one story. She was beautiful, vivacious, and full of secrets. Again nothing new—we all have untold stories we wish to be left alone and untouched by the light of revelation.
Then there is Polley’s story, full of doubts and family myth. –You don’t look like the rest of us. Where did you get that blonde hair? The milkman brought you. The milkman is your father.— These aren’t statements from the movie, but actually the stuff I heard about ME growing up. I was the odd one in our family. (Surprise!) I didn’t resemble any of my brothers and sisters. My mother always told me the milkman brought me—which made total sense because I remember as a baby in the crib listening for the milk truck in the milk light of EARLY dawn—I’d lay there and make the motor sound until my lips were numb from the reverberations.
So I “get” how she felt growing up, hearing her older brothers and sisters joke about her and her so-called provenance.
Except that she decided to do some research and look into her birth. She had been a mid-life-change baby, born when her mother was 42. Diane died at age 53, taking her version of the story with her. So Polley set out on her own to reconstruct a time when her mother was in Montreal working on a play for 2 months—about the time she was conceived. Her father had come for a visit and the visit was conjugal, meaning her parents had relations. So there was no need to question the timing—except Polley needed to probe in order to set her mind at ease. That’s when she discovered her mother had had an affair.
In a weird coincidence Polley met up and had coffee with her birth father who spilled the beans, as it were. Much to ALL of OUR surprise. But actually, I thought it was coming. As a storyteller myself this revelation gave the film arc, explained character motivation.
But the loose thread of this revelation caused the whole thing to come unravel. There was so much more about Diana that needed to be told.
Now we come to where even I was fooled. I should have seen it coming or simply put 2 and 2 together, but I was too absorbed: Polley had me eating out of her hand, as it were. The director was directing me. I’d follow her anywhere.
We learn that about 60% of the movie are reconstructed scenes shot with real-life actors. We’re hoodwinked. Yesterday I blogged about War of the Worlds and how the format lent itself to audiences totally believing the faked news reports of Martians invading. In Stories We Tell there are actual home videos that lend an air of authority. What we aren’t told is that some of the footage, the majority of flashbacks, comprised of shaky hand-held recorder sequences, are not the real thing (Rebecca Jenkins plays Polley’s mother).
In fact I didn’t believe it until I re-watched the last 15 minutes to pull off a transcription of an exchange of dialogue and saw Polley in a shot where she was directing the actors playing her siblings and her mother. Why hadn’t I noticed that before!!?
In an interview Polley defends the idea to add fake footage. She wasn’t meaning to manipulate, pull a fast one, yet it is all part of the layers upon layers of storytelling that get interjected and overlap when we try to sort out the past, of WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.
It’s certainly odd, this blatant artificiality, but it’s also a construct that is genius in its self-reflexive design, underlining as it does the film’s argument about the blurring of truth and fiction in memory. Polley is no fly-on-the-wall; not only does the filmmaker include in the film behind-the-scenes footage of herself shooting and prepping the actors, but she does so with the interviewees as well, asking questions, answering questions, giving directions—all in a bid to expose the contrivances and manipulations behind such a project. In this regard, Stories We Tell is really more of a documentary about documentaries, and one that calls into question the soundness and fidelity of the ‘nonfiction’ format itself.
Truth is a rabbit trail, taking us from Toronto to Montreal, from sibling to sibling, from home movies to family scrapbook and photo albums to—reconstructed images, actors standing in for family members.“We were making a movie about storytelling and this was a version of that,” said Polley in an interview in Los Angeles prior to the film’s opening. “It was always part of the premise to not pretend that this was some factual thing, that this was as close to the truth as we could possibly get with a million different versions — and one of those versions is this film.”
Interviewer: I remember at the Sundance screening some lady asked “So were those recreations?” and I was like “Oh my god…”
Polley: I remember in a rough cut screening this really brilliant novelist who is a friend of mine, really one of the smartest people I have ever known and has written books about film. I remember at the end of the first screening everybody was talking about Rebecca Jenkins and how great she was and he went “Why is everybody talking about Rebecca Jenkins?” Like, “Oh, because she played my mom.” “What do you mean, she played your mom?”
Stories We Tell is history—what we know and don’t know, told from dozens of points of view. It’s my story too.