Representing Reality: Stories We Tell and the Desire for Truth

Hastie focuses in her piece on a sequence towards the end of Stories We Tell, shortly before the revelation that many of the “home videos” sprinkled throughout the film were in fact staged recreations. Polley interviews Harry and asks him, “So what do you think of the concept of me making this documentary where we’re sort of giving equal weight to everyone’s version of the story?” He responds, “I don’t like it.” He expresses his belief that there is only one version of the truth—a version that only he and Diane are qualified to tell. All other versions of the story are tainted by the experiences, loyalties, and/or assumptions of those who tell it. He finishes by stating, “the crucial function of art is to tell the truth.”

Immediately following this is an interview with Michael. As Michael begins speaking, he is interrupted by a makeshift cutboard with: “Shot 1, Take 4, etc.” hand-written on it that is held in front of the camera followed by hands clapping to signify the start of filming. He begins again, “You realize when you’ve finished all this, you’ve got about six hours of stuff and you’ll decide what you want out of it.” He tells her that the film would end up very differently depending on who edited it—her version will be very different from his or Harry’s. He tells her the closest to truth she could get would be to present the interviews completely unedited—and even then, the film still wouldn’t be able to present the “truth” completely objectively.

In “Documentary Film, Nichols explains that in documentary, photographic images often function as evidence, because of their indexical relationship to a referent that exists in reality (106). We’ve been discussing all semester how cinema and photography differ from other art forms because of their indexicality—because, as Bazin argues, “Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it some- thing more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (162). The supposed tie between objectivity and indexicality tends to be stronger for documentary; not only does the audience assume that what they are seeing “really happened,” but they also tend to presume that they are seeing these events without bias or authorial intervention.

Harry seems to take this point of view. He makes it clear that he believes there is one version of the truth and that art’s goal is to find and present that truth. His version of the documentary would likely fall into the expository mode with him as the sole voice of authority. Michael on the other hand seems to favor a more reflexive mode—as evidenced by the decision to keep the moment with the cutboard in the scene. He recognizes that although the film allows us to be as close to the referent as possible, the presence of the filmmaker makes the product not a reproduction of reality but a representation of reality. This may not be the Truth but this is Polley’s truth.

Hastie writes about this same sequence, pointing to the way that this revelation changes the way that the audience watches the film and allows us to “witness the complexity of memory, narrative, and belief layering and unraveling before us” (59). She argues that Polley “shows us that film is like memory in its vagaries, its inconsistencies, and its shifts” (61). Polley, fully aware of the audience’s expectations of film (and documentary in particular), forces us to reconsider our ideas about reality and truth. The two interviews are followed by Sarah’s brother asking her—as she sits behind the camera—what the documentary is about. “Memory and the way we tell the stories of our lives,” she responds. Then, as Sarah’s voice-over reads a an e-mail she sent to Harry in which she describes the purpose of the film, it is revealed to the viewer that many of the scenes the film seemed to present as “home movies” or documents of the truth have actually been recreations that were staged and directed by Polley herself.

This revelation drives Polley’s point home; the one seemingly “objective” evidence in the film—the grainy footage that we assume must be trustworthy—is also tinted by Polley’s perspective, memory, and purpose—this is not unfiltered footage of her mother; this is her memory and her interpretation of her mother. This film reveals itself to be (perhaps predominantly) about filmmaking and documentary; Polley asks the viewer to question their expectations of documentaries and how these films allege to present the “truth.” And although she presents both Harry’s viewpoint and Michael’s, I would argue that it’s clear that she favors Michael’s way of seeing things (as evidenced by using him as the “voice-of-God” narrator). The film encourages us to, as Nichols says we must, interpret indexical images rather than accept them as fact.

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