I learned something valuable tonight about my own impatience. I was on a panel at U of T, as listed below, about Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.” I’d enjoyed it on my first viewing, when it came out, but wrote in my blog that it was at least 15 minutes too long; that what she needed, as do writers, was an editor. That the film would have worked far better if it had been shorter. Wrong.
This is a documentary about well-known Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley discovering that the man she thought was her father is not her biological father. It’s a heartfelt tribute to her beautiful, vivacious mother, who died when Sarah was 11. On this viewing, I could feel my impatient self those months ago, dismissing what was taking place on the screen. In fact, there are two films – the mystery of her parentage, which is gripping and beautifully told and solved after about 70 minutes, and then, in the last half hour, a film about making a documentary about family, memory, life. Who owns the story? Who knows the truth? One of her fathers says, “I am the only person who can tell this story,” and we know he’s wrong – but he’s a filmmaker too, so entitled to that opinion. The other father says, “You will shoot 6 hours of film and edit it down, so you will get to choose the story.” And that is certainly true; she does. It’s Sarah’s story, her film. But she shares it with many other people, including her two fathers, her siblings, her mother’s friends, and her mother, shown in old movies and also portrayed by an actress.
This time, as much as I liked the narrative of her discovery, I also liked the second film – about story, truth, documentary, ownership. I was happy, last time, to feel that I had an opinion different from the mainstream, which was wholeheartedly in favour of her talent. She needs editing, I sniffed. But I wasn’t truly paying attention.
What’s really amazing is at the very end, when the credits roll. She lists the actors who play, in some clips, her mother and both her fathers. Then she lists the actors who play all the other characters in the film. One of the people in the film is Deirdre Bowen, who was a friend of Sarah’s mother Diane and is also a very old friend of mine. As the credits roll, Sarah gives the name of the actress who played Deirdre Bowen. But Deirdre played Deirdre. Sarah lists the actors who played her siblings, but it’s obvious that the people on the screen are her siblings, they look exactly like her. So she plays a final joke on us, an out for the people in the film who might not want to be recognized. She pretends that they were all played by actors.
We had a great discussion with the audience afterwards, I and two academics from the U of T. I urge you, if you get the chance, to see this very fine film. And to ignore the blogger who thought it was too long. It isn’t. It’s just long enough.