Just When We Begin to See Her Face
The true story lies among the other stories;
a mess of colors, like jumbled clothing,
thrown off or away,
like hearts on marble, like syllables
like butchers’ discards.
—Margaret Atwood, “True Stories”
“Thoughts ran in and out of my mind: it’s impossible, it couldn’t be. I’m dreaming.” Michael Polley stands before a studio microphone, reading his manuscript, that is, his memory of his reaction to a story revealed by his daughter, Sarah. She’s directing the scene of his reading, in her film, Stories We Tell. The story she told him in the past is now the basis for his story, his memory transformed first as he put it into words, and then again as he performs it. The film cuts to another scene of Michael, at his kitchen table, his hand to his forehead. “I was quite stunned,” he goes on, as the film cuts to a reenacted version of the moment he’s describing, in a couple of tight close-ups on his and Sarah’s faces. “My God, all this stuff we’ve been joking about for years. It’s actually true.”
The story that Polley has told her father concerns her actress mother, Diane, who died of cancer in 1990, when her daughter was just 11. It’s a story of deception and romance, of family and making movies. It shapes Stories We Tell, partly because it is repeatedly stunning, but more because it occasions a series of self-reflections, revelations, and reactions, all stories in themselves.
The film reveals itself as a set of stories right away, as interviewees settle into chairs and sofas, accommodating the frame, adjusting their images. Diane sits too, in black and white archival footage, on a stage, her hair pert and her smile brilliant. “The two cameras, you’re recording it visually,” Michael observes as he positions himself before the studio microphone. “It’s not the normal way to do this.” Sarah’s voice sounds from off-screen: “We told you it’s a documentary, but it’s actually an interrogation process.” He can’t hear her and so she repeats, “It’s an interrogation process that we’ve set up.” Cut from a two shot, Sarah on one side of the glass, Michael behind it, to the second camera’s shot, Michael on a stool: “Okay.”
As Polley’s film assembles these stories, it becomes another story in itself. As one interview with Michael begins, a pair of hands claps, like a clapboard. “You realize,” Michael tells the camera and his daughter, “when you’ve finished all this…” And here he stops, to say it again. “When you’ve finished all this, about six hours of stuff and you’ll decide what you want out of all of it, it’ll be exactly like the story each one of us will pick out, if any one of us were trying to edit it and decide what we wanted to keep.”
“Exactly like,” in the sense of process, but of course, exactly unlike, in what’s edited. And that’s the story of Stories We Tell. “One of the main focuses in the documentary,” narrates Sarah Polley in the form of a letter she’s written, “are the discrepancies in the stories.” Everyone she interviews—her brothers and sisters, her dad, friends and colleagues of her mother, who was an actress too—remembers the past, their pasts, somewhat differently. A montage shows Polley setting up a camera, laughing with her brother, paging through a photo album, as she speaks. “The truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down,” she says, as you see a Super 8 home movie of her family at a table, white curtains behind them. The scene cuts again, the camera shows Polley on a set, directing this home movie, revealed now to be a reenactment. “And many of our stories,” she adds, “when we don’t take proper time to do research about our pasts, which is almost always the case, end up with shifts and fictions in them, mostly unintended.”
If the shifts and fictions are here “intended,” exposed and incorporated into the story told, does that make them somehow true? Does it matter why you lie or keep a secret? How do memories consort with truth? How do contexts—perhaps revealed by “research,” perhaps by clever framing—shape what’s true, how might they illuminate, obscure or determine what you know about yourself? And what about editing? How does it work, as a physical and emotional process? What’s edited in memory, what’s safeguarded and what’s lost, as those who look after you edit in order to protect or affect you? “Why is it that we talk and talk,” Michael asks, “or at least I do, without somehow conveying what we’re really like?”
The questions seem endless. And yet, Polley’s film is an incredibly smart, concise, and allusive précis. If it doesn’t offer answers, it breaks up the questions into illustrative pieces, bits of relationships, versions of changes, glimpses and—again and again, performances, whether for home movies or family photos, reenactments or interviews, efforts to share and preserve.
Remarkably, for all its attention to process, its provocation of viewers’ participation, the film is also, always, about Diane. As you see the reenacted Diane (Rebecca Jenkins, who, like Sarah Polley herself, unusually resembles Diane) on a backstage set, amid curtains and costumes, Polley wonders how the process has changed her, whether “I’ve lost my mind trying to form her.” The film cuts to a family movie, the sort of vacation footage so many other families have recorded, showing sand and blue sky and blue water. Here Diane is awash in sunlight as her daughter asks, “Is this the tsunami she unleashed when she went, and all of us still flailing in her wake, trying to put her together in the wreckage, and her slipping away from us, over and over again, just when we begin to see her face?”
As you gaze on this face, tanned and damp with perspiration in the heat, you may be moved to wonder yourself. Films tell stories with images, true or not, convincing and moving. As this film conjures pictures for the stories people tell, as it layers versions of stories, edits together different angles and various memories. These images, in this film, are persuasive and raise questions. As it provide forms for ideas or memories that might be slipping away, it also offers ideas and memories that are forming as you watch.