Monday, July 15, 2013

A Tidy Mosaic: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

by James Hansen

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell maps out the mosaic-like narrative of her discovery that her father, Michael Polley, was, in fact, not her biological father. In making a film about her past and the relationship of her parents, Polley’s story spans her entire family history, stretching across space and time to reconstruct the story of her mother and the extramarital affair that lead to her birth. The film includes interviews with various family members and archival 8mm home footage, as well as reenactments of false events and recreations of supposedly ephemeral material. The film attempts to grapple with the refracted shards of fact and fiction, history and memory. Indeed, Polley’s narration and the possibly false interviews of actors playing Polley’s siblings*** point the audience directly toward these ambivalences time and again. While there remain moments in which the curtain is specifically lifted, Stories We Tell doesn’t attempt to trick its audience. Instead, it often explicitly states its intention to create and/or work through a slippage between the past and the present. 

This decision ends up cutting two directions at the same time. First, it places the audience in a place of comfort, more easily navigating the vagueries of the narrative. There is a little question what the film is “about” if only because the figures tell us time and again exactly what they are proposing and where the historical “target” is, even if they find it to be a moving one. Second, though, this ends up denying the film its central premise – that of the refracted, fragmented impossibility of recovering history and finding an essential truth within an individual figure or time period. (In some ways, Polley’s film reverses the thrust of Citizen Kane: a version of Citizen Kane made by the ghost of Hearst himself.)

Polley’s direction and construction of the film as a narrative – and its insistence on making the audience aware of its constructedness – is remarkably polished. Yet, with the narrative mystery in mind, this positive polish can also be read as overly tidy. While this highlights Polley’s talents as a narrative director, it fails to accept the mysteries and the challenges of its own documentary thrust. That is, for all its talk of fragmentation and rupture, Stories We Tell is resoundingly clear, its connections are perfectly tied together; thus, its entire mode of address becomes exceedingly didactic. For all its complexities and provocative lines of questioning, Stories We Tell, if anything, left me wanting less.

***Note: This sentence has lead to some confusion and was poorly worded. Polley speaks with her actual siblings throughout the interview process. In the faux-archival footage, however, they are played by other figures (as mentioned in the previous sentences). Here, I am trying to point to this productive slippage between fact/fiction that resonates throughout the film. Actors do not play the siblings in the interviews, although I would suggest the fact that the documentation becomes skewed suggests a neat, stage-like quality to the interviews themselves in which truth/falsity can still be raised. [Thanks to Peter Labuza, Jim Gabriel, and Corey Atad for raising these points.] 

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