To talk about my thoughts of the excellent documentary “Stories We Tell” in any detail would be robbing you of the joy of seeing it for yourself, of letting its layers unfold like slowly blooming petals.
Generally speaking, it’s a remarkable achievement for Sarah Polley, who only recently migrated from acting to directing. She has quite an eye for editing and honing in on her subject matter.
Ostensibly, her film is a vivid dissection of her family’s past. Yet with each act, it becomes much more. She balances the telling between mawkish and clinical, simply allowing each family member to tell the story of the family “from beginning to end.”
Now for the remainder of this discussion, let’s announce the colloquial warning:
*** MINOR SPOILER ALERT ***
Polley’s documenatry style is immediately disarming and relaxed. We’re pulled in right away, due to the mild mystery at this film’s premise: something big may have happened years ago that calls into question Sarah’s own family ties and her siblings’ relationship to her.
I was soon reminded of other great documentarians like Morris and Herzog and Jarecki (“Capturing the Friedmans“). These artists all have something in common: they are superb storytellers. They know that what they are portraying isn’t mere “reality.” They have cut everything together in such a way as to fashion their own version of truth, which is not to say that the viewer is being lied to. It’s much more complicated than that, as is the nature of life itself. There is no one truth easily sussed from a list of cold facts. Rather, there are many versions of a story, told by those whose perceptions and preconceptions shape their own telling of the story.
Morris has been obsessed with this phenomenon for some time now and has written extensively about it in Believing is Seeing, his contemplation on the nature of “truth” in photography, as well as in many of his films. It’s also a topic that I’m very fascinated by, that of epistemology. What do we think we know, and how do we come to know it?
There has been a recent new wave of documentaries that have also toyed with this theme to exciting new lengths, stretching the nature of truth in this medium to nearly its breaking point. Films like “Catfish” and “TalHotBlond” come to mind. In so doing, these films blur the line between unreliable narratives and the “truth” of their subjects.
But Polley’s film isn’t so much obsessed with the construction of a dishonest narrative. Rather, it’s investigative at its heart. It yearns for the fuller truth of Sarah’s family. The particular method that Polley takes to craft the retelling of her family’s story is ingenious, one I haven’t quite seen before. It’s a feeling akin to pulling, not quite the rug from underneath us (that would be a destructive cheat), but the curtain from before the wizard (which is devastating but rewarding).