Stories We Tell: Sarah Polley and the power of documentary film

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Surely no Canadian artist knows more about storytelling than Sarah Polley. She's been acting onscreen since she was 4. She had her own TV series when she was 8. Then came The Road to Avonlea, and more recently, two adult tales she wrote and directed. So it's initially surprising that she’s now made what I’ll call for the moment a documentary, about her recent discovery that her biological dad wasn’t the dad she'd known all her life.

But not so surprising. Whose limitations do we know better than those we're closest to, like our families and ourselves? And the kinds of work we’ve always done. Polley says of all Canadian filmmakers, she most reveres Allan King, the luminous documentarist. She wrote a gut-wrenching tribute to him in Brick magazine after his death in 2009.

She mentioned recently that the great thing about documentary is it allows you to do anything. That's terrifying and vertiginous, but liberating. It rings true to me, I've always been irritated by the reverence for "storytelling," as in CBC's boast about letting us share our stories with each other. But it seems contrary to the notion that it's fiction, or storytelling, that frees art from the constraint of "mere facts," to explore deeper truths. So what are the bonds of fiction?

They're the limits of story itself. Fiction is riddled with conventions and rules you feel even if you try to bend them. Stories have a beginning and end, at least somewhat, and ongoing characters, plus some meaning if not an actual lesson -- which could even be that there’s no meaning. Lived life isn’t like that: characters pop in and out, plot lines simply vaporize. You can use life as the material for stories but they can take you farther from its truths than nearer. What you need to portray "real" life is art, but not necessarily in story form.

Why does this seem like an odd notion -- art without stories? It may be related to the distinction in literature between fiction and nonfiction, as if they're equal vehicles for depicting life, but suggesting fiction is better, since nonfiction is a mere negative. That would've seemed less true 200 years ago, when stories were few: epics like Homer or the Bible, folk ballads, a travelling theatre company. Now we’re deluged by storytelling: on TV, films, etc., till it’s possible to feel that life itself weakly reflects the stories we devour or create.

Documentary is the name for a form in which Polley can reinsert herself in that other tradition of exploring life but not via stories. Historian Simon Schama says he models his writing on the 16th century French writer, Montaigne, who invented the word "essai" for what he did: an "open-ended 'try' or experiment; something unbound by formal conventions." Schama adds, "The self-propulsion of a ranging intelligence is the dynamo that drives a powerful essay ..." The documentary is a visual essay or "try," if you've got the guts to really go for it.

That's the plunge Polley takes in Stories We Tell. Her film isn't a story, though it's about stories, as its title says, which are forged from the material of life. Its structure is more like the structure of real experience, or lived life.

It's like what Hannah Arendt said about thinking: "There is no method of thinking: thought is the method of thinking." There is no method of living. Life is the method of living. It's that vague and challenging. I'll leave you to delight in the ingenious ways that Polley rises to this challenge for yourselves -- the film opens in theatres today and will eventually be on CBC -- but those delights go well beyond the mere plot reveal about her birth. She's been more creative and innovative in this film than in her others, which were very fine but well within the familiar fiction mould; here she breaks the moulds.

Perhaps I should add that Polley is a friend, and I know most of her family and some others in the film. But what's striking is how viewers in Venice, Colorado and elsewhere have been just as engaged by these real people who to them are total strangers. It's that artful.


This article was first published in the Toronto Star.


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