It’s interesting to think that a documentary about someone’s family history could be so interesting. Most documentaries follow suit more to the essay-format, taking a subject, doing research on that subject, and then use the magic of editing to spin the film in favour of their thesis. However, Sarah Polley’s The Stories We Tell presents it’s unique documentary format as if it were a fiction film or “mocumentary” (mock-documentary.) If one didn’t know these were real people, one could easily be convinced that this was a mocumentary, much to the like of District 9, it’s like if you combined the style of District 9 and combined it with the complete personal colour palate of Kramer vs Kramer.
As Polley herself says, “we can’t all be right, we can’t all be wrong.” It’s here where her film comes to life. If Polley had listened to her birth father’s advice and only delivered the film through one perspective, the story would have been tainted with the very bias her father wanted to force onto it. His way of thinking is that of a child who doesn’t want to share his toys with the other kids. The kid who gets pushed by his fellow classmate down and then gets upset when the teachers ask him if he pushed first, which he very much did. It’s an older Hollywood way of thinking and we can’t be more grateful that Polley shoved it aside and let her true artistic mind take over. It’s this exact form of filmmaking that draws us into the story much like that of a fiction film. By giving us not just the perspectives of her birth and parental fathers, but also those of her siblings, family friends, and even some doctors and work clients. It allows the audience to act like as close to the fly on the wall as possible, just like we would in a fiction film. This is probably why we draw so much interest into the story, despite having no relation to anyone in the film. It gives a sense of pseudo-individualism, allowing us to look into ourselves and relate it to our own families, friends, and even ask ourselves how we might tell a story such as this? How we would we tell our story? And beyond this, how does each individual mind work to retell a story? This film marvels at analyzing human memory, showing just how difficult it can be to remember the past exactly. Doesn’t it just make you wonder how bringing in the wrong witnesses or not enough witnesses or even the witness’s own memory has probably obscured many court cases.
However, no film is without it’s critics and many have commented on Polley’s own subjectivity, once again using ol’ magical editing to help tell the story. As Polley states, “because the film was so much about storytelling and how stories are constructed, it would have felt really false to me to leave out that fact that I was constructing this story.” Polley presents her construction at the end of the film by showing us some of the behind the scenes. It reminds us that this is still a film, it has been edited, and to remember that one of its central characters, Polley’s own mother, has passed away, unable to give her side of the story. Many have critiqued how the film didn’t have the mother’s side, bringing up ethics of filmmaking, stating the film could have made the mother appear one way or another without us knowing. I would argue that this excuse could be made of everyone. I feel like the mother was presented very well. She is seen a someone who loved her children, husband, her friends, and her family, but didn’t quite know what do to when presented with a fork in the road. It makes her human without making her a villain and shows her love without making her a saint. Though, I’m sure one could have edited the film to make her more neutral, how Polley represented her mother was, like the story itself, a collection of every participants opinions and honestly, that’s the best possible way to have do it.
I personally, loved this film and it’s style of documentary. I don’t know if it could be done with every documentary, but when dealing with stories and different perspectives of it, it certainly makes for an outstanding presentation. And hey, it even had some acting, since, you know, this course is called “Acting for Non-Majors” we might as well watch films that, yea know, having acting in them…