Reviewers call this a documentary, and they mean a documentary about Sarah Polley’s finding out who her real father is. It is that, but it is about something larger, I think. An astute French reviewer, Jean-Dominique Nuttens, points out, “The perception of the story, of the secret, little by little becomes more interesting than the secret itself.” Beyond the story of Sarah Polley’s parentage, there is the question, What is the parentage of these images?
Think of how the narration proceeds in Stories We Tell. Literally, the narrative follows Sarah Polley’s discovering the secret of her parentage. We begin with the “storytellers” as Polley calls them, half-sibs John and Susy Buchan, then sibs Mark and Joanna Polley, but especially Michael Polley, Diane’s husband. He has a rather formal, literary account of the whole story from beginning to end that he delivers in front of a couple of mikes and a huge audio mixer. Then he has more informal rememberings told to director Polley across a kitchen table. We get a series of home movies showing Diane and Michael and their children at play or at the beach or making a snowman. Michael tells us how he and Diane met. But a movie of Diane meeting Michael for the first time? How could you have a home movie of that? Who knew to take such a picture? Who kept it? Well, I suppose it’s possible. We get movies of their honeymoon—those are natural enough.
In present tense interviews, the storytellers tell of family jokes about Sarah not looking like the rest of them. John tells of overhearing his mother telephone someone with the news that she’s pregnant. (Somebody filmed this?) But then we get movies of Diane Polley acting and partying in the Montreal production—again, who took these? Why? Then we see Polley the director interviewing people in Montreal who had acted with her mother. We realize—if we can stop to think about it—that these are re-constructions of interviews, re-doings onto film of things that happened months previously.
Then there are the interviews with her real father, Harry Gulkin, and these seem, so to speak, “live.” Finally, an hour and twenty-eight minutes into the film, the secret of the home movies disappears. We get shots of Sarah Polley directing Rebecca Jenkins who, we now see, played Diane Polley in the so-called home movies. Finally, in the cast list at the end of the film, we are told that actors played the Polley family and the players in Montreal and the rest in what purported to be home or souvenir movies.
As it turns out the one authentic picture of Diane that we get (and it recurs throughout the film) is an old kinescope of Diane singing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with new, raunchy lyrics. “I’m Misbehavin’.” Yes, she was, and that one authentic, un-re-created piece of film tells the core truth behind the quest. It’s (perhaps) the one picture Polley didn’t take but found.
Otherwise, Polley told her story as a moviemaker would—by making a movie. Is what she made a self-indulgent fake? No. That's Polley’s point, that these are all stories! Fakes, if you will. Each story is refracted through someone’s personality and beliefs—as we can tell from the discrepancies among different storytellers’ stories. Sarah Polley is a movie director after all. If she is going to tell the story of this family, she is going to tell it by making a movie. But at the end, she insists she hasn’t presented her version—except, of course, that she has edited the whole movie. So, inevitably, what we see onscreen has been refracted through Polley’s own narrative style and her beliefs and feelings about this whole story (as Gulkin points out). And the story has also been filtered through the various characters’ versions.
And we believed. Again, that’s Polley’s point. What this movie is really about is the way we believe films. People speak of the “power” of film, but it isn’t the film that has the power to convince us. It’s our brains. Why do we believe the improbable things we see on movie screens (Spider-Man, Godzilla, Noah’s flood) when we know we are just watching a movie?
In a nutshell, when we listen to a narrative, any narrative, our brains go into listening mode and turn off our systems for acting or planning to act. With them go our systems for assessing reality. We believe. We have “poetic faith” That’s why humans have such trouble recognizing lies. We first believe, then have to make a conscious effort to disbelieve.
When we stop listening and think about what we have heard, then and only then do we assess its reality. But in the movie situation (or reading fiction), if we are really “into” a film or story, “transported,” as the psychologists say, we don’t plan to act on what we’re paying attention to. We are, as Kant pointed out long ago, “disinterested.” We are just enjoying. We sit and watch, we respond aesthetically, and we don’t assess the reality of what we’re perceiving, even though, at a purely cognitive level, we know quite well it’s a fiction. We have what poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described back in 1817 as “the willing suspension of disbelief” or more accurately,“poetic faith.”
In this film, Polley is playing with that phenomenon. She gives us a curious mixture of fact and fiction. The story Polley tells us is true (though we are hardly to act on it). But the manner in which she tells it involves fictions, these made-up home movies and reconstructions and re-editings of actual interviews. These we believe in, or at least I do: I am a sucker for fictions. But so are we all.
Am I pushing my reading too far if I suggest that there is an even subtler theme in this movie about movies and believing movies? Isn’t there a resemblance between the act of photographing (still or motion) and our bisexual reproductive process? That is something else this film is about, Diane Polley’s playing with bisexual reproduction. How do we take a photograph, still or moving? An active photographer with a camera meets a relatively passive subject and “shoots.” We do, after all, speak of the camera as “intrusive” and “penetrating.” The photographer with camera “takes” the subject. What results is a piece of film (or a digital file) that is a miniature replica of the subject as modified by the photographer, a bit like a child. It isn’t just the photographer’s doing or just the subject’s or actor’s. There is a joint parentage to what we see on the screen. The actor, as is so often said and as Sarah Polley herself has insisted, doesn’t create his or her separate work of art, the “performance.” The actor collaborates with the filmmaker to produce their joint work of art. Here Michael Polley and Harry Gulkin and Diane Polley all interact to produce Sarah Polley and Sarah Polley’s movie.
From a Canadian point of view, Sarah Polley is a celebrated actress and director. To be related to her would be a good thing, and I sense a certain smugness in the people who are getting her into their family. And interestingly, the discovery converts Polley from her WASP ancestry through British-born Michael Polley to half-Jewish. As she remarks, she’s involved for the first time in setting up a Passover dinner.
As for Michael Polley and Harry Gulkin, I get a very different feel from Sarah’s two fathers, one an actor who mostly quit the business, the other a well-known producer. Michael writes the story, Harry wants to film it. Harry’s big accomplishment was producing a famous film, Lies My Father Told Me (Kadár, 1975), a title all too appropriate for this film and an important film for Canadian cinema. It seems to me that Harry Gulkin never gets far from a rather self-centered view of his affair with Diane. He says, “The reality is, essentially, that the story with Diane, I regret to say, is only mine to tell, and I think that’s a fact.” True, but . . . We hear a lot about what it meant to him, the distress he felt, and his wish to move Diane to Montreal, breaking up Michael’s family. He never gets far from his producer’s mentality, planning to “make something” of what Sarah had created. He starts to write the story up and plans to go public—to Sarah’s great distress. He judges Polley’s project in terms of the film she plans, not the pangs of emotion it was bound to evoke in the man he cuckolded. By contrast, Michael was a talented actor who quit acting and began selling insurance to support his family. (Diane resented this as a waste of talent.) Michael Polley seems incredibly magnanimous, concerned for Harry’s feelings. Is Polley suggesting a difference between producer-director types and actors? She’s been both. Anyway, Michael responds fully to Sarah’s complex of feelings and engages her project fully on its own terms.
And a remarkable project it is. Polley’s achievement opens up the very nature of film and how film is related to bisexual reproduction and why and how we believe in the films we see even though we know they are merely light flickering on a screen. Polley has created these interviews and documentaries and films of filming and built from them a meta-film that asks us to consider how and why we respond and believe as we do. I think that we would have to go back to Méliès and Dziga Vertov and Chien Andalou for so inventive an experiment in filmmaking. (As if to point us that way, Polley stages a meeting with Gulkin in the “Méliès” café.) Whatever we call her creation, it is hugely original. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I simply admire.