Near the beginning of Sarah Polley’s newest film, Stories We Tell (2012), an autobiographical documentary about her family and her life history, Polley asks one of her sisters what she thinks about this very film being made. “Who fucking cares about our family? Can I swear?” her sister replies. This quick line, almost a jokey throwaway, is, in fact, key to Sarah Polley’s conception of autobiography and documentary filmmaking. Polley’s sister, Joanna, like each of the director’s four siblings, will play a vital role providing her thoughts and her memories about the family and their complex relationships, but here near the start of their interview, she questions the very legitimacy of the project and whether their story carries any special weight. Even as she voices skepticism, though, Polley’s sister immediately cedes to the authority of her sister/interviewer/director. “Can I swear?” she asks the documentarian, off screen. Joanna voices her own assertive perspective and pulls back to acknowledge her sister. This short line establishes the push-pull, give-and-take pattern that will continue throughout the film and in many distinct forms. From this pattern, Polley’s film seems to forward an argument about autobiography and documentary filmmaking: that these are plural, collaborative genres most effectively and truthfully made through a chorus of many and diverse voices, a “medley” as her other sister, Susy, describes it, each given freedom as well as equal weight.
In effect, Sarah Polley’s film “does theory.” She tells her life story, she is the film’s writer and director, but she also positions herself throughout as a theorist of autobiographical narrative. By inviting others’ voices and ideas into her story, by representing her self, her subjectivity as distinctly “revealed in relationship,” (1) and by self-consciously laying bare her process throughout, describing and depicting her at times tentative and ambivalent methods and allowing the questions, skepticism, and contradictions coming from her interviewees into the final film, Polley envisions her theory of a choral, relational autobiography and its practice.
The Story Told (spoiler alert!)
Stories We Tell revolves firstly around Diane Polley, the director’s energetic mother and sometimes stage actress, who died of cancer when Polley was eleven years old. In her late 20s, Sarah Polley learned that her mother had had an affair with a film producer in Montreal, and that, although she was raised by Michael Polley, her mother’s husband, she is in fact, the product of the affair. Though unconfirmed until Sarah herself makes the discovery, this is a story that has been in her family for many years. First it was a joke: the little ginger headed toddler Sarah hardly resembles her father, Michael; then it was a rumour: Sarah’s oldest brother seems to have overheard a phone conversation where their mother said she didn’t know who the father of the baby was; finally it became a mystery with an answer: Sarah seeks out men her mother might have slept with, and through a DNA test, she discovers that Harry Gulkin, an important Canadian film producer, is her biological father.
This summary of the “story” hardly captures the experience of watching Stories We Tell. This distillation is only a short version of the film’s mystery and drama. Polley isn’t (exactly) interested in this plot, the plot that one of her interviewees rightly describes as a story with “very, very strong structure … with great sadness and with great joy.” A story, in short, perfect for narrative. Polley is interested instead in the story’s telling and in the ways that truths, people, and selves can be told and represented.
Polley’s theory of choral autobiography and documentary filmmaking conceives of authority and expertise differently. Her chorus of voices makes visible a uniquely collaborative process, but this process may not seem terribly unusual. Documentarians regularly interview experts or eyewitnesses as they construct their arguments or their narratives. And interviews with family members may not seem surprising for a work that relies so much on memory, a slippery, often unreliable source. Autobiography and documentary filmmaking, however, are most often constructed following a hierarchical notion of authority which positions the writer/director at the top followed by those others she decides to include and privilege based on expertise. Polley, on the other hand, sets out to create a true chorus where she gives equal weight to each piece of information and opinion, to each version of the story, and to each kind of telling. Hers is a radically democratic project, but a project that nonetheless shines a light on her own very personal and very intimate history.
As in many choruses, however, a soloist usually emerges, and that is no different here. Polley creates a framework whereby her interviewees, the many people who make up the “we” of her film’s title, are given a good deal of authority–which she in effect abdicates–but, as is clear in her sister’s words cited above, the film reveals a constant process of negotiation and re-negotiation. Polley seems, as a director, ambivalently in control of her project. Hers is a striving, not for power but for plurality and collaboration. Of course, this striving isn’t always easy or entirely possible.
The Stories: A Chorus of Voices
The “chorus” of voices in this film is evident in two primary ways: the film’s voice-over narration written and read by the director’s father, Michael Polley (2) and the many interviews Polley weaves together: individual interviews with each of her four siblings, with her father and with Harry Gulkin, with members of her extended family, and with her mother’s extensive circle of friends and professional associates. Polley describes these many voices in a post she contributed to the National Film Board of Canada’s blog, “Each of us had a deep and growing need to tell the story, different parts of it, in different ways, with emphasis on different details, in a way that reflected our own experience and what was most important to us as we are now.” (3) Polley’s film aims to capture all of those different “parts,” “ways,” and “details” by knitting the many voices together. Since the film’s release, she has elaborated on these voices in an interview with Richard Porton: “a cacophony of voices is what can approximate the truth, even if it never really gets there.” (4)
Stories We Tell opens with Michael Polley’s voice speaking these words that begin his own written memoir and that he has excerpted from Margaret Atwood’s historical novel, Alias Grace: “When you’re in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness … it’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or to someone else.” As Michael reads these words, the film’s visual track shows clips from what appear to be many different home video sequences: grainy, soundless clips of people laughing, smoking, and drinking at a restaurant; a mother holding her young child; people gathering in a church; a man and a woman at home. After Michael’s brief narration has ended, the visuals fade out, and the movie’s title appears on a blank screen. This short “prologue” already points to the film’s “dialogic” method: the director’s father narrates the film with a piece of writing he has produced independently and in which he quotes from at least one other writer while short clips of many distinct home movies, their producers, subjects, and situations yet unexplained, stream by quickly.
This prologue also attests to a notion dear to many theorists of autobiography: the self and the experiences that we write or read about in autobiographical narratives are constructions of language. Paul de Man’s essay, “Autobiography as De-facement” established the notion that it may not be the life that leads to autobiography, but the reverse. “We assume that life produces the autobiography,” de Man writes, “… but can we not suggest, with equal justice that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life?” (5) Writing autobiography, writing a life retrospectively and in the form of a narrative, creates rather than represents that life. Autobiographers shape their lives into stories when they put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or their eye to the viewfinder of a camera. Their lives were not made up of stories before the impulse to narrate, to write, or to produce a film. Stories come after. As Ross McElwee says in his own autobiographical documentary, Sherman’s March (1985): “It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to live.”
By telling stories–rather than “a” or “the” story–and by relying on highly self-conscious filming and editing techniques, Polley’s film foregrounds this notion that a story told of an experience is a recreation, a textual version of the experience and only one version of it, at that. Others’ versions will be different but equally true, and it is only from the combination of the many versions that some truth can arise. Her theory of autobiography and documentary filmmaking combines this notion about the chicken-or-egg conundrum characteristic of autobiographical narrative, then, with her unique choral practice of marrying many stories together. And McElwee, referenced above is, in many ways, a perfect contrast to Sarah Polley’s theory and method. McElwee’s many autobiographical, or autobiographically-inflected documentaries are uniquely grounded in the filmmaker’s sole voice and perspective. McElwee’s sonorous and fluid voice is the only one viewers hear in voice-over commenting on the action of the film, his voice is also often heard from behind the camera as he engages with the people he films, and in at least one of his films, McElwee creates a dialogue between himself. In Time Indefinite (1993), the director points the camera at himself as he sits in an armchair speaking to the camera, diary-style while we also hear his voice over the images, recorded during post-production. McElwee weaves these two voices, “past” and “present,” together as if in a kind of solipsistic conversation. Polley, on the other hand, theorizes her autobiography as voiced by many instead of one, and her own speaking voice withdraws.
The scene that follows the film’s title screen establishes the situation of her father’s voice-over narration. Sarah and her father ascend a staircase to the recording studio where he will read his text. There are three cameras filming this recording process: one on Sarah near the studio’s mixing table as she listens to her father read, stopping him every now and then to have him reread a line or two, another on Michael Polley as he sits facing the music stand and a microphone reading from the many sheets of paper in front of him, and a third, a Super 8 camera roving between the two spaces filming on stock that resembles home movie footage. The footage from this reading and recording and from all three of these distinct cameras, punctuates the entire film so that Michael’s voice seems to become the voice of the film.
When Michael enters the studio and takes his seat, Sarah explains what they will be doing, drawing his attention to the stack of papers that comprise his text. Their dialogue reveals that, although he is clearly a willing participant, he did not know exactly what he was in for:
Sarah: So this is the first half.
Michael: This is what, love?
Sarah: [louder] The first half of what we’re recording.
Michael: I’m going to do the whole lot?
Sarah: Yeah. There’s another … [chuckles]
Michael: All this?! It’s the whole of the thing I wrote. It’s a punishment, that.
While the loving rapport between Polley and her father is evident in this scene, there is a very clear sense of the director orchestrating–even dictating–a larger framework within which Michael is given the space and the freedom to tell his story. In other words, Sarah Polley’s position of power, even as her father is the sole author of what he will read, comes through here. She has decided that he will read it all for her, she follows along, watching him as he reads, and she stops him every so often to go back and reread when he has not enunciated well or what he has run through perhaps too quickly. The ambivalent give-and-take of authority between these two is palpable in this scene and throughout the film. Michael Polley’s words work in the service of Sarah’s film, and it is her project that seems to position itself as validating this memoir which was originally written not to be filmed or published but simply as an eloquent, if long, letter to the author’s family members in the UK. But still, the words are his. His story. She does not provide commentary on them or seek to preface or correct any parts of them. Throughout the film, Polley continually uncovers this tricky power dynamic between her and those she has invited into her project. She highlights, simply by including them, moments where her participants question her or express surprise or disagreement with her. Because her theory of autobiography and documentary is one of plurality and collaboration, Polley attends to the potential problems, the opportunity for disaccord and awkwardness that just such a theory, put into practice, might entail.
With the voice of her father, Michael, Polley’s chorus includes the many people she interviews for the film. The first few clips from these interviews reveal Polley’s method, the manner she chooses to allow space for her interviewee’s own tellings of their stories. She begins each interview by asking her interviewee to simply tell the entire story from beginning to end:
Sarah: So Dad can you tell the whole story? The marriage to mum and
everything that has happened since?
Michael: Good god! The entire story?
Sarah: I’m gonna ask you now to tell the full story as though I don’t know the
story from the very beginning to the very end.
Joanna: Shit… uhmm.
Sarah: Can you tell the whole story from beginning to end in your own words –as though you’re telling a story to someone.
Susy: Like a medley.
Sarah: Can you describe the whole story from the beginning until now in your own words.
Harry: What?! Now… I guess I better pee first. Wow. Yeah give me a moment.
These four exchanges follow one after the other rather quickly to open the film’s many interviews. The idea here is that Polley simply asks everyone to tell their story, tell it in their own words, tell all of it. And they do. These four exchanges also reveal the difficulty of the task she puts before her interviewees. Polley indeed gives them much freedom, much authority, but she also asks much of them.
Many of the stories drawn from the interviews Polley conducts corroborate each other. Many, however, do not. Most notably, each interviewee tells a different story about Diane Polley’s reaction to the news of her pregnancy with Sarah. Michael tells Sarah that her mother’s first reaction was worry, worry about her age–she was in her forties–and the impact that would have on the child, and she was leaning toward aborting. He adds that he expressed support for whatever decision she made, but that he silently preferred to keep the baby. Sarah’s uncle corroborates this story concerning Diane’s reaction and adds that he encouraged Diane to have the baby. Her father even adds that Diane only decided to keep the baby when they were on their way to her appointment for the abortion. John, Sarah’s oldest brother says that their mother was excited because a pregnancy meant something new, and she was always looking for new. A couple of Diane’s friends say no, Diane was not at all happy about having another baby, that she “was not elated.” And finally Harry, the man who would turn out to be the baby’s biological father, says that Diane was “elated” about the pregnancy and so was he. Whether Sarah Polley herself has any perspective on this issue is not revealed, and she in no way seeks to interrogate the discrepancies by, say, telling one interviewer that another said something quite different. Polley simply lets the different tellings exist side-by-side in her film.
These conflicting stories unearth the notion that truth is contingent upon both the teller and the audience. Diane’s account to each of these people must reflect her distinct relationships with them; she would not be expected to say the same thing to her son, to her husband, to her brother, to her friends, and to her lover. Each of these people gets to hear one, or maybe two, aspects of her reaction to her pregnancy, not all. And what they hear must be coloured by what she believes they will best respond to. A mother would not be likely to tell one of her children that she was anything other than excited about another child, and she would not be likely to tell a close girlfriend, who has perhaps heard of her frustrations running a very busy household of four children that she was anything other than “not elated” to add a fifth to the mix. The stories also reveal, however, that their differences need not point to untruths in any of these accounts. These feelings had by Diane Polley upon her fifth pregnancy, and attested to by those who were close to her, are very likely all true. She probably felt by turns “elated” and “not elated” by this life altering news, and it is only by asking for this story from many people that Sarah’s film arrives at this multi-faceted truth. It is by drawing back her authority, by allowing each of her speakers to “author” their own story that Polley presents this complex, but likely “true” image of her mother.
Other moments in these interviews, however, reveal strong skepticism and strong discomfort with the project on the part of the interviewees. In addition to the director’s sister Joanna, cited above, Harry, in particular expresses his skepticism over how this story of his affair with Diane will be told. Sarah asks Harry what he thinks of her making this documentary where everyone gives his or her perspective, and he responds: “I don’t like it. I think it takes us into very wooly… You can’t ever touch bottom then. We’re all over the place. …” He goes on to discuss the many concentric circles of people surrounding those two he considers the main players: himself and Diane. Those who live outside of these two have only very limited knowledge and should be accorded less authority. He continues: “The crucial function of art is to tell the truth. To find the truth in a certain situation. That’s what it’s about.” Polley does not intervene while her interviewees speak, and it seems clear that she would agree with this last part of Harry’s objection, with his ideas about the function of art as a tool for unearthing truth. Her notion of the avenue one takes to arrive at–or attempt to arrive at–truth, though, is entirely different. The truth she seeks is plural, collaborative, “choral.” She need not speak that difference in response, she need not voice her objection to Harry’s stated preference. Polley’s method, her theory of a choral autobiographical and documentary process is envisioned throughout her entire project.
So, like many documentarians, Polley indeed includes the voices of “experts,” but, in quite a distinct manner than most, she does not use these testimonies to forward a single, unified narrative or argument about her self, her mother, or her family. Even though the imprint of her control is evident throughout the film–she herself highlights it–Polley does not position herself as an authority who weeds through these many stories to find the one that carries the most truth.
Polley highlights her control, in fact, in order to dampen it. The chorus of voices in Stories We Tell strives to be a true chorus in the sense of equal weight given to each voice and to each question or contradiction raised. It may not, however, be a chorus in the sense of these voices “sounding good” together, harmonizing with one another. As the interviewees’ conflicting accounts show, Polley’s own word, “cacophony” surely better captures the manner in which the film’s many voices interlock.
The Stories: A Chorus of (Moving) Images
Together with these interviews, Polley includes what I would call a visual “chorus,” or visual “cacophony” made up of family photographs, old home movies, and re-enactments of important moments that were not captured on film. Most fascinating within this plurality of visual materials is Polley’s collapsing of what we might think of as continuum of “truth” in cinematic evidence. On the one hand, the film is punctuated by home video footage from the Polley family. This “real” footage functions, similarly to such archival visual material found in many documentaries, as evidence supporting the stories told by Polley’s interviewees. On the other hand, and on the other end of the continuum of “truth,” there are many instances of re-enactments featuring actor-look-alikes for Polley’s family members that are intentionally made to resemble those “real” home video sequences: they are shot on grainy super 8 film; they lack synchronized sound and, often, adequate lighting; and they have a general look of amateur home movie filming.
By using these two varieties of visual evidence or visual illustration in one film, Polley seems to be responding to a distinction drawn between writing and cinema by an important theorist of autobiography, Philippe Lejeune:
I cannot ask film to show my past, my childhood, my youth, I can only evoke it or reconstitute it. Writing doesn’t have this problem because the signifier (language) has no relationship with the referent. The written memory of childhood is just as much a fiction as the childhood memory re-enacted in film, but the difference is that I can believe it and make it believable in writing because language brings nothing of reality. In cinema, on the other hand, the inauthenticity of the re-enacted artifact becomes apparent because a camera could have recorded the past reality which is instead represented by a simulacrum. The “superiority” of language is owed more, then, to its capacity to make us forget its fiction, than to any special aptitude it has to tell the truth. (6)
Lejeune describes film’s “indexicality,” normally a strength, as a problem because he assumes that autobiographical films will rely only on re-enactment rather than on archival footage. Using both, Polley’s film gives equal weight to the “real” and to the “false.” She erases the distinction between the two by placing them in such close proximity. In the context of her film, both are visual stories. In fact, the re-created scenes, one in particular that imagines the first meeting between Polley’s two biological parents in a crowded Montreal bar, appear to be given greater weight than the “real” home movies. Polley returns to them, and this particular re-enacted scene, again and again. This “simulacrum,” as Lejeune calls it, exists alongside of the archival, the “actual” in Polley’s film, and this causes it to “catch,” as it were, the “truth” of those “real” home movies.
These re-enacted scenes are also, and importantly, those parts of the film that Polley quite clearly authors. While they are all based on stories told by her interviewees, the re-enactments are directed by Polley. They are her interpretation or visualization of the accounts provided by others. And, late in the film, Polley reveals her own authorship by including brief sequences of herself watching as these scenes are filmed and speaking to the costumed actors in between takes. The camera is pulled back, as it were, to reveal the filmmaker’s method, to reveal the “simulacrum.”
Between these two “true” and “false” types of footage on the continuum, Polley also includes re-enactments of important but more recent scenes between herself and others, and rather than actors, here the real participants “play” themselves. A kind of partial “simulacrum,” these scenes once again attest to Polley’s theory of a choral, plural autobiography where she involves her participants in the creation of her visual stories, but, because she is still the film’s director, they also make evident her own control. One of the most striking examples of these partial simulacra depicts the first time Sarah and her biological father, Harry, meet in a Montreal coffee shop. Sarah has no idea that this man could be her father. She imagines he might have met her mother once or twice, and so she requests a meeting at a coffee shop when she happens to be in town for something else. They hit it off and chat for hours about her mother generally and about politics, of which, it turns out they share many positions. The footage here, this re-enactment where Sarah and Harry play themselves meeting each other for the first time, is again shot with a Super 8 camera and in an amateur fashion. Although the viewer must realize that the “original” of the scene was never filmed, Polley gestures toward the style of those types of archival footage that are most often taken as evidence in documentary films.
There is no sound from the “scene” itself. Instead we hear the voices of some of the film’s interviewees narrating over the grainy images: Sarah’s brothers and sister, her father Michael, and Harry tell this tale over the scene while Sarah’s own voice is notably silent. In fact, her oldest brother, to fill in the details concerning Harry’s thoughts about their biological relationship says this, “He said it’s possible not probable. I think those were the exact words you said to me on the phone, were they?” Polley herself, off screen, does not reply to her brother’s question. In a kind of reverse telephone game, the interviewees speak back to the director what she told them of this encounter long before the film itself began. Apart from Harry’s account, the stories told by the others are dependent upon their memories of Sarah’s telling many years ago when this meeting took place. Sarah’s story exists here, then, but it is refracted through these many voices, and she leaves it to them, again according them considerable narrative authority, to tell of this encounter what she herself might have told but doesn’t.
Errol Morris, the famed documentarian of The Thin Blue Line (1988) writes this of the role of re-enactments in his film:
Memory is an elastic affair. We remember selectively, just as we perceive selectively. We have to go back over perceived and remembered events, in order to figure out what happened, what really happened. My re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper – something that better captures what really happened. (7)
Morris’s purpose in The Thin Blue Line is an urgent one, to be sure. His film finally helped exonerate an innocent man who would have otherwise spent the remainder of his life in a Texas prison, and it did so largely by relying on multiple re-enactments staged according to information provided during interviews. His re-enactments aim to root out truth, to root out “what really happened.” The re-enacted scenes in which Polley and her interviewees “play” themselves in the past also uncover truths that would not be readily apparent through interviews and reporting alone. As in the conflicting interviews that allow us to access a multivalent, plural truth about Diane Polley’s thoughts on her fifth pregnancy, here this partial simulacrum allows the participants and the viewers access to a representation of a past experience. Sarah and Harry together recreate their first handshake, the first words exchanged, and the crucial moment of realization. And the many tellers that Polley calls upon to provide the narration to this visual story of her first meeting with Harry both attest to and allay the problems associated with “elastic” and “selective” memory. Still, however, Polley isn’t as interested as Morris seems to be in shining a light on one truth, the truth. Instead she seeks to “better [capture] what really happened” by relying on many to tell what they recall of the story she and Harry illustrate visually.
Harry, however, might object to Sarah’s endeavour here: though the players are “original,” this re-enactment is a very different thing than that experience it seeks to represent. And he would not be wrong. When experiences are over, only the stories remain, but, according to Polley’s theory of a choral autobiography, only the many stories about the long gone experience put together can most closely approach the experience.
Conclusion: Conflicting Theories
In the first scene of the film, after the “prologue,” Michael Polley reads from the beginning of his memoir, the memoir that will become the narration of his daughter’s film:
Ok? We’re off… ‘In the beginning, the end. I am unique. From that precise moment when I was dragged out of my mother’s womb into this cold world, I was complete. An amalgam of the DNA passed on to me by my mother and father. And they too had been born finished products with their DNA handed down by their respective parents and so back ad infinitum. It is clear to me that I was always there. Somewhere in my ancestors’ DNA just waiting to be born. So, this unique “I” has always existed even in the mystery of nothingness. So where to start?’
Although the filmmaker uses her father’s memoir within the space of her own, they have entirely distinct ideas of autobiography. Michael conceives of his single self as a “unique ‘I’ [that] has always existed,” and the memoir that he writes, and of which we hear a good deal, attests to a belief in the power of narrative to capture and represent that self. His citing of Margaret Atwood’s lines in the film’s prologue–”when you’re in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all … it’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all…”–suggests, however, his simultaneous suspicion of any claims to total accuracy in the narrative rendering of experiences. Like many ambivalent autobiographers before him, Michael Polley knows that his endeavour contains a dollop of fiction even as he believes that it represents his self, a self unique and fully formed upon birth. Sarah Polley, though also ascribing to Atwood’s perspective, nonetheless theorizes a very different kind of autobiography than her father. Rather than the one autobiographer telling his “single self,” Polley’s is a collaborative, choral autobiography. It “voices” her father’s alternative position because his is a crucial perspective for her story, but fundamentally, Polley’s self, Polley’s story, and her theory of autobiography and documentary filmmaking is plural, choral. It is revealed by the many stories others tell about and around her, and this, her film suggests, is the closest anyone can come to truth.
This article has been peer reviewed.
- Susanna Egan, “Encounters in Camera: Autobiography as Interaction,” Modern Fiction Studies 40:3 (1994): 593.
- I will refer to Michael Polley by his first name or as the director’s father throughout and to Harry Gulkin by his first name, following Polley’s own designations in her film.
- Sarah Polley, “Stories We Tell: A post by Sarah Polley,” National Film Board of Canada Blog, (August 29, 2012). http://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2012/08/29/stories-we-tell-a-post-by-sarah-polley/
- Richard Porton, “Family Viewing: An Interview with Sarah Polley,” Cineaste 38:3 (Summer 2013): 38.
- Paul de Man. “Autobiography as De-facement” MLN 94:5 (Comparative Literature) (December 1979): 920.
- Philippe Lejeune, “Cinéma et autobiographie: problmèmes de vocabulaire,” Revue belge du cinéma (1978): 7-14 (translation and emphasis mine)
- Errol Morris, “Play It Again, Sam (Re-Enactments, Part One),” New York Times, Opinionator (web) April 3, 2008. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/play-it-again-sam-re-enactments-part-one/