About halfway through Sarah Polley’s 2013 documentary Stories We Tell, Michael Polley turns to his daughter and asked, “What is this documentary about?”
Well, it’s about stories and, as Melissa Tamminga adds, “Storytelling.”
In addition to writing film criticism for Seattle Screen Scene, Tamminga teaches English and film studies at Whatcom Community College. And Polley’s doc, Stories We Tell is a favorite of hers to program, and not just because it’s a “personal story about a family that’s deeply engaging.”
“But [Stories We Tell] also comes in a really abstract level about what it means to tell a story in the first place,” Tamminga says. “Who should be telling a story? What are the ethics of documentary filmmaking?”
But first, we better answer Michael Polley’s question: Stories We Tell is a documentary by way of a family secret. For decades, Sarah Polley’s older siblings teased her that her father wasn’t their father—that she was the product of an affair her mother, Diane, had with another man. And though Diane died in 1990, when Sarah was 11, the teasing did not. So, Sarah started looking for the truth. But no matter where she turned, she found hard facts and false bottoms. Both give Stories We Tell its shape and form, but, as Tamminga says, “The way that she interplays those two things,” is what makes it memorable.
It’s what draws Tamminga to appreciate and teach Stories We Tell—the emphasis on editing, the structure and shape of storytelling, and how Polley weaves together reenactments, archival footage, and multiple perspectives in the doc.
“The film demonstrates to us that we just accept images that we see on the screen, as what they purport to be without really questioning,” Tamminga adds.
It makes Stories We Tell a powerful work, but a slippery one, too, thanks to multiple on-screen narrations. From “the narrators [family members] that are telling us their version of the events,” to, “the camera itself as a narrator [which is] also telling us a version of the story,” Tamminga says.
Stories We Tell came out in 2013, a few years before the terms fake news and deepfakes entered the lexicon. You could apply both to Stories We Tell, and you’d be correct. But it would also be reductive.
“Polly threads the needle in a really interesting way where you do get the sense that there are things we will never be able to know or understand,” Tamminga says. “And, yet, there are ways to represent as much of the multifaceted reality that is still somehow truthful, but with also accepting the idea that it’s not necessarily going to encompass every single aspect of the truth.”
To borrow a line from Hail, Caesar!’s Hobie Doyle: “It’s complicated.”
For more on Melissa Tamminga and to read her writings, follow @OneAprilDay.