Autobiographical documentaries invite their viewers to explore the hidden world of one’s personal journeys. They allow the audience to get a glimpse of the deep and meaningful life stories of the unique personality of the protagonist. 'Stories We Tell' is an autobiographical documentary (Doucet, 2015) as well as a documemoir by Sarah Polley (Waites, 2015). The author invites the viewers to participate in witnessing the family drama by means of multiple interviews with the nearest and dearest, simultaneously engaging into the production process of the film (Waites, 2015). This blog will analyze the documemoir and the artistic methods employed into its creation.
The film is based on people sharing their memories about Polley’s mother, resembling a memoir. Diane’s life is reconstructed by the recollections of her significant others, who are interviewed by Polley during the film. Waites (2015) asserts that “in the absence of a single, identifiable “truth,” Polley aims for the next best thing: the various accounts of this crucial epoch in Diane’s life— from the perspective of her significant others—spliced together to make a coherent whole like so many pieces of film in the editing room”. The way in which Polley found out about her biological father is being narrated by family members and close friends telling stories of Polley’s mother’s life, Diane (Waites, 2015).
As the audience gets deeper into the documentary, they get the feeling of realism from the way the interviewed people talk. They share their narratives but also the story of a person they are all related to. People in the film tell the story of Diane - actor, casting director, wife and most importantly mother to five children. The siblings disclose their memories about their mother before she passed away from cancer. Two of the children are from the first marriage. A detail held back until the end to make clear that she was scared to leave her second husband for the affair, who she actually loved. It was back then a scandal which also ended with the fact that she lost custody of her children in the first divorce. The viewers meet her second husband, Micheal. One of their children is Polley, the director of the documemoir, the only one who is not getting interviewed.
Moreover, we also get to see some of Diane’s friends and working colleagues. While the story is progressing, it comes out that she had an affair over a significant time, in which she got pregnant with Polley. The Documentary ‘Stories We Tell’ is using different approaches to tell a story, but not just one story, rather a collection of them, to give us an idea of a lived life.
Multiple home videos, re-enacted scenes, pictures and emails contribute to the life stories of the author (Waites, 2015).This distinction between fake and real becomes clear to the viewer through clues and in a scene where Polley is giving notes to the actors. Therefore, we can describe this documentary as a meta-documentary: the film does not seek to erase the signs of its making but rather emphasizes them (Butler, 2016). Waites (2015) states that “the blurring of real with dramatized footage underscores the elusive boundary between memory and imagination”, which can lead some to ask themselves if everything is fake.
The documentary shows that, as a director, Polley is behind the camera, but at the same time, suggesting that she also plays a big role in the film, by placing herself in front of the camera. As a result of this, the meta-narrative of the documentary is being emphasized even more (Waites, 2015).
What is the truth?
After watching 'Stories We Tell' there is still an unanswered question on the back of the viewer’s mind, what are the truthful and fictional elements in the film. There are multiple ways to answer this question and they depend on what type of truth is being searched for. The audience may be searching for the objective truth; the factual events of what occurred in the past, whereas Polley is searching for a personal truth; her identity, which is found only from the reflection of life experiences. This topic of what is fiction and what is truth is explored thoroughly throughout the documemoir and through Waites’ (2015) piece. Polley uses multiple methods in order to seek the ‘truth’ about her mother’s life and the effect it had on her family, and in turn her own identity (Waites, 2015).
Waites (2015) also explores the theme of self-presentation and self-reflection present in Polley’s piece. She references the art critics W. Ray Crozier and Paul Greenhaigh who claim that the history of self-presentation follows a long tradition, where the artist paints a picture or compiles a memoir and “seeks to tell the truth about oneself and to others”. The artist, Polley is not just self-reflecting, she is translating “her appearance in the mirror into some representation” (Waites, 2015). Therefore, this brings the viewer to something Polley’s father, Michael, says during the documentary; “You know all about it, and you know it's a delusion. "It's all done with mirrors, mate," they used to tell me. Yes, the mirrors. The mirrors in which you can see yourself clearly... the mirrors through which you can see what you really look like.” Only Polley can paint a true picture of herself, her identity from what she sees when she looks in the mirror and from the ornate story of her life.
The multiple perspectives of the “Stories ‘We’ Tell”
As the title Stories We Tell suggests, Polley’s documemoir is not a narrative told from her perspective alone; rather it is stories ‘we’ tell. Different from the general understanding of the memoir genre, which “relies on the memory and consciousness of a single remember-er” (Waites, 2015), Stories We Tell lacks this single “I” perspective. Waites (2015) argues that incorporating the multiple perspectives shows us that “our understanding and knowledge of ‘self’ derives from the stories that we are told, that we create and that we tell others”. Polley depicts how we script our life stories while at the same time being a character in other people’s life stories. We are never able to get full access to other’s perspectives since we interpret things in different ways, as is shown by the differing perspectives in the documemoir. Therefore, the used elements, both constructed and real footage from the past, add to the diverse perspectives being told, suggesting that all distinct versions of the stories may have some element of truth to them (Waites, 2015).
One of the first methodes is applied at the very beginning of the show. It starts without a clear introduction or explanation. Just the question towards the interviewee: ‘tell us the whole story’. While the family is telling their part of Diane’s life, there is also a narrator, her last husband, Micheal. We watch as he comes into the studio, takes his place and starts to read his part, while getting instructions from the director. As the audience is about to find out later, the director is the youngest daughter and the narrator is her stepfather or also known as the husband of Diane. The audience is exposed to the stream of memories. The viewers seemingly participate in the quest of finding the truth via the constructed and abrupt interviews under the guidance of the author. Furthermore, the cut is a play of many different styles, united to a whole idea of storytelling. Only at the end of the documentary the viewers understand how much the whole production was thought through with all the small details and artistic methods.
The private videos take the audience away from the interviews and let them get lost in the story, but not for too long since the cut is always going back to the interviews. Not all of the videos are real but are re-constructed, hence they are completely under the director’s control, which becomes clear only in the end. If Diane was there to tell her story, it would be completely different from what the others have to say; it would be her own version of the truth. Her lived experience is separated from the narration of others and tells a story of truth and fiction, the same goes for everyone else in the documentary.
Another artistic method in the documemoir is the reading of e-mails and letters between the involved people. This approach helps to change the direction and perspective of the story, especially in the second part. The viewers can experience a switch of focus from Diane, the mother, to the youngest daughter. After all pieces come together with the help of the family and friends, it is now time for Polley to deal with what she found out throughout the filming. And as her brother asks her ‘what is this documentary really about?’, the focus moves to her, to her life as an aftermath and further away from the story of her mother.
The documemoir 'Stories We Tell'
'Stories We Tell' is an autobiographical, documemoir that glues together multiple sides of one story, as in a puzzle. Through the methods employed by the director, such as reconstruction of old narratives, the documentary makes use of fiction and is self-aware of the editing process, which is clearly shown throughout the film. By choosing to present multiple narratives, the director emphasised the importance of different perspectives in the construction of the self.
At the same time, this technique makes the documemoir artistically unique, as it is not focused on the story of only one person. The line between fiction and truth is blurred in the dramatized footage of the reconstructions, which are played by actors. Thus, it can be said that Sarah Polley mixes imagination with memory to prove that identities are performative. The result is an artistic endeavor for the search of the self in relation to other people’s lives. The director makes a strong point: that truth is ephemeral and that is subjective to each of us. The multiple sides of the same story, presented by different people, prove that the reality is constructed, and not objective.
Questions of discussion
How do fictional elements reinforce the storyline?
Why is it a documemoir?
Were the fictional parts evident while watching, or did it all seem real?
Butler, R. (2016). When One Becomes Two: the Ending of Catfish. In S. Kunkle (Ed.), Cinematic Cuts: Theorizing Film Endings (p. 121).
Crozier, W. Ray, and Paul Greenhaigh. Self-Portraits as Presentations of Self. Leonardo 21.3 (1988): 29–33. Print.
Doucet, A. (2015). Ontological narrativity and the performativity of the Stories We Tell. Visual Studies, 30(1), 98-100. doi: 10.1080/1472586X.2015.996415
Lee, A. & Basmajian, S. (Producer) & Polley, S. (Director). (2012). Stories We tell [Film]. National Film Board of Canada.
Waites, K. J. (2015). Sarah Polley’s Documemoir Stories We Tell: The Refracted Subject. Biography, 38(4), 543-555. doi: 10.1353/bio.2016/0004