Film, like writing, is split categorically between “fiction” and “nonfiction.” This nomenclatural divide most likely stems from a perceived obligation to the audience on the part of nonfiction — the title conveys a promise of truth. Stories We Tell, the new documentary from Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), successfully asserts that there is no objective reality to be found anywhere in “nonfiction.” Polley isn’t the first documentarian to upend audience expectations of fact, but Stories We Tell needs no novelty to succeed; it is a beautiful film.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion in “The White Album.” She describes the fairytales we create out of everyday events — stories are the way we make sense of the world swirling around us. In Polley’s film, her father, actor Michael Polley, offers this alternate take from Margaret Atwood:
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
The film contains much (interesting) meta-discussion about the nature of stories, but its emotional compass is Polley’s unabashed desire to understand both the life of her mother, Diane, who passed away when she was eleven, and the relationship between her parents. This basic wish — to comprehend who our parents are, who they were, how they lived their lives, and how we fit into that picture — is relevant to all audiences. Stories We Tell ultimately leads the viewer to a revelation that Polley already knew when making the film: Michael is not her biological father.
To try to understand the narrative of her own conception, Polley interviews members of her family and her parents’ friends, asking them to recount the story of Diane’s adult life as they saw it. The narrative oscillates between interview footage, old home videos, and re-creations shot to look like home videos. The possibility of linear storytelling immediately disappears; each subject has a different perspective, and the obviously staged re-creations further blur any semblance of objective truth.
Some of the stories told: Diane was a charismatic, beautiful woman whose passion was the stage. She may have loved her husband Michael deeply, but there was also likely quite a bit of marital discontent. Michael, a loner by nature, may have been unable to make his open-hearted wife feel desired. Diane lost her children from her first marriage on grounds of adultery during a bitter custody battle; the guilt from that loss may have destroyed her self-confidence. It’s possible that Diane found love during her affair with film producer Harry Gulkin, who certainly loved her passionately. Diane may have chosen to hide the fact that Harry was Sarah’s father to keep the family together, or because she loved Michael above all else. There are very few solid truths here, only stories about love, shortcomings, parenthood, depression, and discovery.
At first glance, there’s an essential self-absorption inherent in the form of the personal documentary. Polley recognizes this — she says that she finds her compulsion to reveal her family’s secrets “embarrassing.” However, it’s far too simplistic to write off the whole project as an expression of contemporary narcissism: to do so is to dismiss an entire genre, to assert that nonfiction is always narcissistic when it’s autobiographical.
More traditional documentaries, whose primary goal is to impart information, can be stunningly dull even as they’re remarkably educational. (Note the phrase “talking heads,” dismembered body parts so impersonal that the fact of their speech warrants a descriptive title.) Polley follows in the footsteps of the great documentarians — Marcel Ophüls comes to mind — who replace the goal of information with the goal of psychological exploration.
The customary cornerstone of the documentary, the interview, is undoubtedly a psychological situation. Two people sit down and decide that this will be an officially sanctioned exercise, one in which some semblance of the truth will be arrived at, information imparted. A filmed interview offers the viewer insight into this therapy-like interaction: a chance to watch the subjects contradict themselves, to notice the inherent biases in the ways they understand the world.
For this reason, interesting documentaries like Stories We Tell don’t constrain themselves to a linear, factual timeline of what happened and why. Good documentaries instead assert: there is no objective truth humanity is capable of recognizing. Much of real life consists in the telling of stories, which may or may not be true, depending on your vantage point — individual reality is a self-described fiction. The tension between the expectation of a fact-based story and the actuality of a nuanced tale gives documentaries, when done right, a special emotional potency.
In the film, Michael Polley quotes Neruda: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” He then observes, “We talk and talk without somehow conveying what we’re really like.” Stories We Tell exists in the space between those two sentiments: we unavoidably desire to understand our past and are simultaneously doomed to lack the words or perspective to explain even our own point of view, let alone understand the stories of others. We must learn to be content with the truths offered in ambiguity.
Stories We Tell is currently playing at select theaters nationwide.