Thursday, 31 January 2013

Histories we tell

The best historical documentary that I've seen in... well... maybe forever, probably wouldn't even recognize itself as a work of history. Certainly not History. Yet that's exactly what it is. Elegant history.

I'm talking about Sarah Polley's new film Stories We Tell. In the film, Polley sits down with her father, her siblings and a cast of her mother's friends from the past and asks them to tell her 'the story' from beginning to end. The story, as you'll almost certainly know going in, is that her father isn't her biological father. Her mother had an affair in the past, and Polley is a lasting, tangible result of that affair. Polley only learns this later in life, after she's grown up, after her mother is dead.

There had been rumours. Jokes. Family jokes about Polley not really looking like her father. Perhaps, they laughed, her real father was one of those men that her mother acted with in a play back in the 1970s when she'd gone off to Montreal for a few months. Wouldn't that be funny? Wouldn't it?

In the film, Polley pieces together the story of her mother, her parents' relationship and what happened, or didn't happen, on that trip to Montreal. We learn, bit by bit, about the complications of this family - their secrets, the things they know about each other, might know about each other.

It is wonderfully told history - an essay in the historian's craft. There are only a few eye-witnesses. None of them saw everything, knew the whole story. The one woman who could have pieced it all together (if she'd been willing to tell the truth) is no longer here. Who do you believe? What is true?

The story, or really stories, get more complicated as the film goes on. Just when you think you might understand, there's a new twist, an story which is incompatible with something else.

Source: CBC

You might say this is a perfect example of postmodern filmmaking and history. And it is. But in a post-postmodernist way. That is, Polley isn't caught up in her own cleverness about the multiplicity of interpretations. She's not trying to wow you with the wonder of unknowable truth. The unknowable, multiple version of what really happened - its unknowableness for everyone - is just there. It's a fact of life. Now, let's try to actually tell the story, to get to the abiding truths that might come from assembling the different accounts of this relationship/these relationships.

The result is the best film I've seen in a long, long while.

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