Documentaries are difficult for me to write about. More accurately, they're difficult for me to write reviews for. Documentaries always come with a point-of-view, which means that they have to take a side in the discussion of their subject matter. This isn't to say that narrative films don't have a point-of-view; however, audiences are more often than not voyeurs in those films, looking in on the lives of the characters and observing what happens. Documentaries, on the other hand, are persuasive. The objective is to present this subject and possibly change someone's way of thinking through it. For me personally, this makes them hard to review because I tend to gravitate toward documentaries with subject matter that I consider important to me. For example, though last year's Searching for Sugar Man was a rousing glimpse at one hell of a comeback story, I didn't consider it a better doc than The Invisible War (a horrifying expose of rape in the military) or How to Survive a Plague (which charted the history of ACT UP). So how I view a documentary usually depends on how I feel about the subject.
To that end, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to discuss Stories We Tell, director/actress Sarah Polley's examination of her family history, a little bit now that I've seen it and it's made the shortlist for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination. *SPOILER WARNING*
By now, it's fairly well-known that the film's twist is when Polley discovers that her actor father, Michael Polley, is not actually her biological father, but she is instead the product of an affair that her mother had with another actor. What's remarkable about the film, however, is how it's structured. Polley positions the audience in her place, so that we're as surprised by the revelation as she was when she found out. Moreover, she uses this to explore perceptive truth in storytelling by using interviews with family members, each offering a different (and often contradictory) take on the events in question. By cutting back and forth between these interviews, home video footage, and recordings from her dad's memoir, Polley creates a complicated picture of the "truth," and how there may be no such thing as a universal truth in terms of what's presented on film.
It reminds me a lot of Orson Welles' 1973 documentary F for Fake (in case you needed evidence of my film class credentials). In his film, Welles used such disparate sources such as art forager Elmyr de Hory, Howard Hughes, Clifford Irving (who wrote a fraudulent Hughes biography), and his own 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to explore the concept of fraudulence. Welles structured the film so as to constantly keep the audience guessing as to what was true and what was fake, essentially questioning the veracity of the documentary format itself (that he did so while maintaining a free-form feel for the film makes it even more remarkable).
Polley pulls off a similar feat with Stories We Tell. Here, she subverts the audience's expectations of what is true by refusing to stick to one single version of the story. By including the various contradictory accounts and interpretations, she leaves us with the same feeling that she must have felt: confusion about the details, and a desire to make sense of a story that's drastically different from the one she had always been told. Her film highlights an important question when it comes to documentaries: is it even possible to fully represent "the truth" on film? Or will it always be distorted by subjective point-of-view? Polley's film is a remarkable examination in what the stories we tell say about us, individually and collectively.