Stories We Tell

First published here.

One notable thing about Sarah Polley’s first documentary, her third feature, is how difficult it is to give a straightforward account of what it’s about. Or at least it’s difficult to do so without fatally compromising the power of the slowly unfolding mysteries and kaleidoscopic truths of Polley’s collection of ‘stories’ about the loving but troubled and secretive life of her now-deceased mother, Diane. These stories are told to the camera by her five siblings, her father, Michael, and a scattering of her mother’s acquaintances and friends, some more intimate with the multitudinous aspects of Diane’s life than others.

I think, though, that the opening moments give us enough to go on, and also, in their own way, reveal what’s so compelling about the movie beyond the actual matter of Diane and Michael’s marriage itself.

The movie opens in two ‘bits.’ The first is something like a brief prelude: over some 8mm home movie footage, we hear a man with a dulcet south London accent (think a gentler and warmer Alan Ford) speak these words: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” An onscreen title then attributes the passage not to our male narrator but to Margaret Atwood, from her novel Alias Grace (1996), the film adaptation of which, not coincidentally, Polley has announced as her next project.

Following this, accompanied by the searching, plaintive yearning and loss of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” is a longer sequence in which Polley assembles what she will come to call her ‘storytellers,’ principally her siblings, each of whom we see sat before a camera to be questioned onscreen and off by Polley over the course of the movie. This questioning will be intertwined with bits and pieces of home movies, photographs, and a ‘spine’ made from footage of Michael recording the movie’s narration in a sound booth, complete with frequent re-takes to polish the occasional roughness of his on-the-spot delivery more to the shape, speed, and sound of Polley’s liking.

As Polley’s witnesses try to settle into some comfort before the camera, she asks each one individually, in an almost rhythmic repetition, to tell her the story of the marriage of Michael and Diane, from as early as they can remember to this present moment, and in turn we see each equally bemused and confronted by the weight of this seemingly straightforward narrative task.

stories_we_tell_still_05_lrg_nfbI found these moments strangely wonderful. It’s something to do with the instinctive, human grip of the irreducible distinctiveness and uniqueness of these voices and faces, and their peculiarresonance with each other, for instance the tortured yearning of the singing finding a strange harmony with the ordinary small talk as two people sit down and prepare to examine their shared past and its losses. We feel such resonance through the way Polley starts with these quick juxtapositions of each individual’s different but shared response to the same question about two intertwined lives.

Each speaker holds their different ideas, understandings and truths about what happened in and to those lives, and what those happenings and their effects mean now or meant once, but Polley will wed them all into something like a unified story, the unity of which is not found in anything like linear cohesion but more like a multi-faceted mosaic. Polley’s stories form a prism which she turns in the light captured by the camera, showing onscreen her own tentative wonder at the way her relatively gathered, tidied-up stories refract the same source image into a fractured flow of different views and colours, like those scattered memories of childhood (did that happen, or did I make it up?) that come to us as adults, blown back into the present of our lives by winds cast up from the depths of our pasts.

The movie is extraordinary and I hope to return to it again in gratitude for the searching generosity it displays towards the lives of each person onscreen. There is a risk in this kind of thing that we might be falling into the trap of a contemporary, narcissistic theatricalising of privacy and intimacy that works only to destroy our sense of the meaning and value of those qualities so crucial to interpersonal life. Indeed, Polley has to confront this head-on when her brothers and sisters want to know the point of making the private histories of their family so searingly public.

The point is that the images and sounds of this history, as told through the verbal recollections and the visual artefacts that Polley collects around Diane and Michael’s marriage, put us in poignant contact with the wonderful fascination of human faces and voices joined through intimate conversation. These are images and sounds of the traces left by human lives when they’re over, but their stories are not finished, and so they are not truly gone.

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