The Truth in Stories

Paper by Lia Durham.

In Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary film, Stories We Tell, she is trying to uncover the truth. Actually she has already uncovered the truth but is reenacting her discovery to show us the audience what she went through. The film opens with old footage of Sarah’s mother Diane. In this documentary about family discovery Sarah interviews what seems to be everyone in her immediate and extended family. Except for one person, her mother Diane. Diane died when Sarah was 11. It seems to be that out of all her siblings, who are older than her, Sarah may have known her mother the least. What comes to fruition in the film is that maybe nobody knew all of Diane. It comes to pass in the film that Diane had an affair around the time of Sarah’s conception and Michael the man that raised Sarah may not be her biological father. The main purpose in Stories We Tell is to find the truth. The obvious solution of this would be to talk to Diane but because she is no longer on this physical plane Sarah must find the truth through other people’s recollections during that time. This brings up a few concerns regarding, memory, perspective and truth. All the information presented by the interviewees are memories from 30-something years ago, it’s safe to say that it might not be the most reliable way to get the facts. Also personal issues and perspectives have to be taken into account and all of this is relying on one person’s truth. Two people can have two different truths about the same event. To show her truth Sarah uses the reflexive, participatory, and performative modes of documentary filmmaking, with the use of these storytelling tools she gets to the most truthful place that she can in her film.

The reflexive mode is when the filmmaking process of the documentary is exposed. According to Bi ll Nichols author of Introduction to Documentary, “the processes of negotiation between filmmaker and viewer become the focus of attention for the reflexive mode” (147). This allows the audience to be aware of the filming, editing, sound recording, etc. Also Nichol’s points out “we now attend to the filmmaker’s engagement with us, speaking not only about the historical world but about the problems and issues of representing it as well” (147). In this mode the curtain is drawn back and we see the strings that are used to construct the film. In Stories We Tell, we are shown the recording studio where the voiceover for the film is being recorded. This is a motif throughout the film. The story at points, especially when looking back at Diane’s life before Sarah, is engrossing and as the audience you start to lose yourself in the story. Coming back to the studio and seeing Sarah’s father Michael read the narration and seeing Sarah directing him reminds us that she is actually the one in charge of the direction of this film. It reminds us that what we are seeing and hearing on film is Sarah’s subjective truth. She asks her father to re-read lines which we see also take him out of the moment and make him separate from the words he wrote. Sarah has the power to have him change his tone or expression when recounting the events which again prove that this story is told with her perspective at the forefront. Another example of this mode in the film are the interviews she conducts. These interviews also are an example of the participatory mode. Nichol’s explains that in this mode the filmmaker “steps down from a fly-on-the-wall perch, and becomes a social actor (almost) like any other.(Almost like any other because the filmmaker retains the camera, and with it, a certain degree of potential power and control over events.)” (138). Right away we are made aware that Sarah is behind the camera because the interviewees are speaking directly at her. They say things like “you” when referring to Sarah. We hear Sarah’s voice asking them questions. Not only questions pertaining to the subject of the documentary but questions about the process of making the documentary. Sarah asks her brother Mark “are you nervous” and he replies “a little” with a light giggle. From this we see the truth of what the interviewees may be feeling during the interview. We see that that this is a personal film and this is made possible because Sarah has a personal relationship with everyone who is being interviewed. We hear that comfortableness even in uncomfortable situations like being filmed and talking about an uncomfortable subject like your mother having an affair. Both the reflexive and the participatory modes provide information in this documentary about whose truth is being represented on film.

The other documentary mode that played a big part in the film was the performative mode. Nichol’s describes the performative mode by asking the question, what is knowledge? Is knowledge facts or understanding? The performative mode stresses the importance of the filmmakers emotional experience toward an event. It’s mission is to have the audience understand what the filmmaker was feeling rather than an exactly factual retelling of the events. For example in Stories We Tell, Sarah reenacts the moment in which she tells the man that raised her that he is not her biological father. There are quite a few moments in the film that Sarah re-creates scenes. She does this in the style of home videos. According to the Cineaste interview titled, Family Viewing, the author Richard Porton mentions that Sarah uses a “Super 8mm” camera to create “re-enactments that playfully illustrate key moments” (36). In the interview Sarah says she chose to do this in the film because she “wanted to be open about the fact that the film is a construction; the idea was to provide audiences with that experience and make them wonder what is real” (39). This coincides with the fact that during her actual discovery Sarah herself was wondering what was real. She was being told by many different people the events surrounding her conception, some with vastly different recollections of the same event so she herself had to sift through and find the truth for herself. Back to the scene between her and her father Michael. It was shot in the style of a home movie with Michael narrating the scene. He describes how he cleaned up and how he engulfed the conversation when she first arrived about old film actors. All the while we are seeing a reenactment of the scene he is describing, also we are seeing a reenactment of Sarah experiencing this scene as well. We see her with this look of sadness and slight worry in her eyes. She seems disinterested in what her father is saying. She is playing with her food and looks preoccupied in her thoughts. As the audience we know why this is, we know that she is going to give Michael some big news. We can feel the tension and the awkwardness on screen and that is the point of the performative mode. Even though some may criticize this method as not being the most truthful, it is much more powerful for the audience to see this scene play out in a reenactment rather than just an interview recalling it. In this instance this was the most truthful way of portraying the feelings during this meeting to the audience.

In the Cineaste interview Porton points out how the reveal of Sarah’s biological father is not the most interesting part of the film but the “myriad interpretations of this discovery prove more important than the discovery itself” (36). These “cacophony of voices” in the film prove that our memories are not always truthful. By using the reflexive, participatory and the performative mode Sarah portrays her truth and understanding of the events in the film. She incorporates other perspectives but ultimately this is her version of the truth.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction To Documentary. 1st ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print.
Porton, Richard. “Family Viewing An Interview With Sarah Polley”. Cineaste 2013: 36-40. Print. Stories We Tell. Canada: Sarah Polley, 2012. Film.


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