What is the obligation of a documentary—what, for that matter, is the obligation of any work of non-fiction—to its audience and to the underlying facts of the story it tells and to the source material on which it is based? If source materials have been re-created or fictionalized, at least in part, can either the story that is based on those sources, or the story-teller’s telling of the story, still stand?
It’s a question raised by The Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s acclaimed documentary about her investigation of her parentage and of the ambiguity inherent in people’s recollection of the past.
In some ways, The Stories We Tell is typical of the intelligent and well-made documentaries often seen on PBS’s documentary series POV (filmspeak for “point of view”). Using home movies and interviews with family members and friends, Sarah Polley (let’s call her “Sarah,” since so many of the characters are named Polley) traces her late mother’s 1978 trip to Montreal to act in a play, and investigates the possibility that an extramarital liaison there might have led to her own conception.
Early in the film, Sarah’s actor-father Michael Polley tells us that soon after marrying the woman who would become Sarah’s mother, he bought a movie camera, and we see and hear about the early, high-spirited years of their marriage, her mother’s disappointment when Michael turned out to be less exciting than she had expected, and her time in Montreal, where we see her acting and socializing with her vivacious-seeming fellow cast members.
Family lore has it that one of them was her biological father; one of them, in fact, on the evidence of the home movies, looked a good deal like Sarah. But as she interviews her way through her mother’s Montreal circle, another candidate, Harry Gulkin now white-haired and Falstaffian, but then a Montreal movie producer, union organizer and editor with a soulful, Bohemian look, steps forward and admits—volunteers—that he is Sarah Polley’s biological father.
Harry wanted them to marry and raise their child together. Sarah’s mother Diane considered it, he says, but ultimately decided against it, still haunted by an early and unsuccessful marriage and divorce in which she lost custody of her children. After she dies, a devastated Harry goes to Toronto for her funeral; and although Michael doesn’t remember his being there, we see Harry bereft, sitting by himself at the back of the funeral chapel.
What sets The Stories We Tell apart from a typical POV documentary is that Sarah eschews a point of view, eschews adopting a narrative that would tie together the events she has uncovered in a neat story line. Instead, Sarah asks surviving family members and friends to tell the story as they know it, from beginning to end. While the volume of footage and the necessity of keeping audiences interested require editing, and to edit is to choose, Polley is an even-handed editor, playing no favorites in whose versions she presents. The film reports, she seems to be saying, the audience decides.
We discover the truth about Sarah’s paternity less than halfway through the film. But The Stories We Tell’s big surprise comes much later, after we have heard the interviews, seen the movies and formed our opinions. I didn’t see it until the credits; in interviews, Sarah points to a shot a few seconds in length twenty minutes before the end. But she admits that a lot of smart, film-wise people missed it entirely.
Peering around departing audience members as the credits rolled, I noticed that the credits included a cast. Not the list of interview subjects—Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Sarah’s brothers and sisters and the rest. But the kind of cast of characters that follows a fiction film:
Rebecca Jenkins as Diane Polley
Peter Evans as Michael Polley:
Alex Hatz as Harry Gulkin
And so on.
Then I understood. Yes, Michael Polley had a camera. But surely he wasn’t socializing with Harry and Diane in Montreal. Surely he didn’t shoot home movies at his wife’s funeral. Surely Sarah didn’t film herself breaking the news to Michael that he was not her biological father. How could there have been so much home-movie footage, footage that meshed so well with what interviewees were saying? And all in a documentary that otherwise would have been dominated by talking heads?
He wasn’t. There couldn’t be. Sarah says 40-50 percent of the home movies were real. The rest weren’t home movies at all but staged scenes performed by professional actors. The soulful young Harry Gulkin? An actor. The Montreal actor whose features suggested Sarah’s so strongly that he was the leading candidate in the family’s speculation? An actor. The fun-loving crowd with whom Diane and Harry socialized in Montreal? All actors. Even Diane herself, the free spirit we saw in her element in the Montreal theater? An actor.
There’s an element of directorial artifice in almost every documentary. So on one level, Sarah Polley’s recreation of scenes from her mother’s past is just the latest step away from the tradition of veritÃ© documentaries. When I broke into the business, it was received wisdom that documentaries couldn’t be built around stills—couldn’t, in other words, tell stories from the pre-motion-picture era—until Ken Burns did it and made it work. For years, documentarians resisted using impersonators for historical figures, ruling out of bounds not only documentaries on subjects from the pre-photography era but docs on more recent but not-famous figures from the past, documentaries about people of whom no photos were taken and about whom no one wrote biographies. That barrier fell as well, and we are all the better for it.
But The Stories We Tell seems different. Viewers who see a documentary on George Washington are aware that they are not seeing the real George Washington working at Mt. Vernon. But in The Stories We Tell, the staged scenes are shot and edited to obscure their fictionalization from the audience. And they are not just illustrative but go to the fundamental questions the story raises. Harry Gulkin says he was at Diane’s funeral; Michael Polley says he wasn’t. Both speak convincingly. The staged “home movies” say Gulkin was there; no visuals support Michael’s version. Gulkin says Diane’s pregnancy and his own fatherhood were well-known in their circle; another interviewee says it was not. The film shows what we are led to believe is Diane and Harry out with friends, supporting Harry’s version of an open secret; no visuals support the alternative version.
Why does it matter? Because we think one way of Harry if he went to Diane’s funeral, another way if he didn’t. And what we think of him affects how much credibility we accord his version of events.
The mission of the documentary form, like the mission of all non-fiction, is to make sense of life. Interviews have always been a staple of documentaries. But because memory is unreliable, especially after the passage of decades, photographs and film are at the form’s essence, home movies most of all. Other photos and film may have been posed and lit. But the bad lighting and hand-held shakiness of home movies purport to attest to their relative spontaneity and vouch for their authenticity, thereby fostering the viewer’s trust in the veracity of the story the documentary tells.
When a documentary’s fundamental elements are fictionalized, that veracity is compromised and the audience’s trust in both the story and story teller is undermined, if not betrayed. It’s not just Harry Gulkin’s credibility that’s at stake but Sarah Polley’s. What else might she have fictionalized or simulated? The sequence of long faces that follows Michael’s heart-breaking refusal to tell Sarah his last words to his dying wife: Were they, too, faces of sadness at a vibrant life cut short? Or were they merely the faces of interviewees sitting silent and expressionless while the cinematographer recorded “room tone,” the sound of the room, for use in editing.
The story told by The Stories We Tell is a powerful one, intensified by its familiarity: The story of Diane and Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin and their daughter could be almost any of our stories. It didn’t need lily-gilding or faux home movies, and it’s poorer for their inclusion.