October 17, 2013

Playback: Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell'


Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

While shooting my documentary Kings Point, I once said to a subject,"Just try to pretend I'm not here." Her response taught me a lot: "How can I pretend you're not here? You're here!"         

It's hard to imagine Sarah Polley, whose remarkable film Stories We Tell was released in May, ever asking the participants in her film to "pretend" she wasn't there. Her film, a complex tale of family secrets and the relationships between family members, inspires me because, in many ways, it defies the conventions—and the delusions—that documentary filmmakers traditionally revere. To put it another way, Stories We Tell is as much about storytelling and the challenges of documentary as it is about the people profiled in the film.

Astonishingly honest and original in its form, Polley's documentary is not a social issue film. It has no agenda. There are no clear heroes or villains. Instead, it reveals things about the human condition without provoking the viewer to anger.

Most importantly, Stories We Tell is not a vérité or observational film, in which a director implies that what is happening in front of the camera is "real." In fact, in Polley's film, there are hardly any vérité scenes at all. She begins by showing us the camera itself and, as viewers, we are immediately implicated in her direct and methodical inquisition.

I have worked with directors who would never film or include a subject addressing the camera—the dreaded "talking head"—as if to do so would be to render the scene inauthentic. (Personally, I have always thought that a good interview is like a moving portrait.) But Polley's filmmaking almost asserts the opposite; along with archival scenes of her family life, most of the real drama of the film comes from the subjects talking directly to the camera. She almost never introduces a camera to a situation or tries to pass herself off as a "fly on the wall."

In the world of Stories We Tell, to do so would be disingenuous. Her philosophy is clear: The only thing the viewer can believe is a subject expressing what he or she feels.       

It's a refreshing contrast to the usual process, in which the director goes through all sorts of acrobatics to fabricate "authenticity." Anyone who has ever seen raw, unedited footage, has heard a director or cameraperson say,"I'm sorry, could you just walk through that door again? I'd like to get it from a different angle." Or, "Could you say what you just said again, but use the subject in the sentence so the viewer doesn't have to hear my voice?" The director, in essence, is guiding the subject toward making a clearer, more declarative statement than he or she may have intended. At the same time, the director is manipulating the subject's response in a certain direction and covering his or her own tracks to maintain the illusion of vérité.

Polley's voice is part of the film. And authenticity is not lost. The filmmaker, after all, is always part of the story. Whether or not we make personal films, whether or not we explicitly acknowledge our role in what is unfolding in front of the camera, there is merit in remembering that we have a part in it.

 

Sari Gilman is a documentary filmmaker and editor based in San Francisco. Her recent film, Kings Point, was nominated for an Academy Award.

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