Representation of the actual world: Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) demonstrates the inevitability of subjectivity in film production via the equipment of voice, showcasing the unalterable influence a filmmaker’s bias has on the creation of their art, regardless of the employment of documentary techniques such as the inclusion of interviews, archival footage, and a cinéma vérité approach, validating Bill Nichols’ argument that the documentary genre presents a representation of the world, rather than a reproduction (Nicholas 2001). 
Firstly, the idea that the documentary presents a representation of the actual world stems simply from the fact that the actual world cannot be reproduced. Things as they happen in actuality, if not documented in real-time and without intent to persuade or inform, cannot be free of subjectivity in its retelling without the existence of unbiased contextual knowledge, making it impossible for a documentary to do any more than to represent. Representations in documentaries are therefore judged more by the nature of the pleasure it offers, the value of the insight or knowledge it provides, and the quality of the orientation or disposition, tone or perspective it instills (Nicholas 2001), as it becomes clear then that to create a documentary is not to provide the truth as it is, but to present the truth to fulfill the answer to a proposed question. 
Nichols reports, “in presenting the sights and sounds of reality, it enables reality to speak at the same time as it speaks about reality” (Nicholas 1988). This makes the documentary a narrative form, deploying specific modes of story-telling (Cowie, 2011) - standing for a particular view and allowing filmmakers to have a voice in order to convince, persuade or inform their audiences about issues - the voice then can be said to be the point of view of the creator, that becomes known to us and which we are expected to believe, therefore making the definition of “documentary”, relational or comparative. (Nicholas 2001) 
Accordingly, Stories We Tell, a documentary fuelled by Polley’s personal urge to find and explain her family’s story, emphasises the role of her voice and its significance to the perspective presented in the argument, as "the voice of documentary is most often the voice of oratory" (Nicholas 1988), indicating that it exists to convince us, the audience, of their, the filmmakers’ truth. 
Essentially what Stories We Tell, does is condense actions and events that happened over the span of decades into a 104-minute documentary, attempting to explain and illustrate a period of lifetime, which cannot be reproduced, on behalf of someone who cannot do so for themselves, in attempts for Polley to fulfill and satisfy her need for answers to be displayed- ventures of which can undeniably only come across as biased and subjective.  
However, Polley strategically employs the documentary technique of interviewing to provide her audience with an illusion of autonomy, as involving all sides of the story facilities in diverting the viewership from sensing pre-existing motives in storytelling. Interviews of those closest to Diane, Polley’s mother, the actions of whom the plot revolves around enables viewers to gain confidence in the learning of Diane’s character- Diane’s children, Polley’s siblings describe her as ‘fun and goofy’ and ‘full of life’, Harry, Polley’s real father, describes her as someone who ‘lit up the life of those around her’ and so on, although implying that what we, the audience, make of this information is unaffected by the filmmaker's bias or intent, doesn't actually mean any of it is true, there is no objectivity to their reminiscings. 
These descriptions of Diane are merely how she is remembered and interpreted through her actions, which has then allowed Polley to construct her as a carefree, easy going-person to build up to a narrative of Diane’s affair, to almost serve a sense of closure for herself, of how this all, of how she, came to be. Additionally, Polley’s personal voice, not only through directly asking specific questions to which she wants answers, but by also editing and compiling the footage to fit a personal agenda which fulfilled her interpretation of the events, is in itself biased, and unable to present a reproduction, only a representation. 
Secondly, Polley skilfully incorporates archival, home movie footage filmed on a Super 8 camera merged with re-enactments of past events with actors that have an uncanny resemblance to their real-life counterparts, too with a Super 8 camera, making it difficult to distinguish between the real footage and the reconstruction of scenes. 
Until the last quarter of the film, audiences aren't made explicitly aware of the acting taking place to fill in gaps, forging the character of Diane’s and those around her, through this visual confirmation. Use of ‘archival footage’ then becomes appealing to the audience’s emotions and assists in the production of desired disposition; putting the audience in the right mood or establishing a frame of mind favourable to a particular view (Grue 2006), techniques that are used to generate the impression of conclusiveness or proof. 
Although some shots in Stories We Tell, are pure archival footage, the majority of these ‘home movie footage’ shots are artificially manufactured to seem like evidence of the narrative Polley constructs of her mother from what she chooses to hear and act upon from her interviewees’ dialogue. The incorporation of archival footage has been manipulated in this documentary to further construct and present a representation of the actual world, as it seems to have been based on Polley’s interpretations and selective understanding of her mother and therefore her actions. 
Lastly, Stories We Tell adopts elements of cinéma vérité in its representation of the actual world by showcasing ‘the truth’. Cinéma vérité 
is said to capture the objectivity of everyday reality on film, to let the camera act as an innocent recording device, allowing subjects to speak for themselves (Buchanan, 2018). So, regardless of Polley’s previously discussed equipment of interviewing and recreation of archival footage through re-enactment, features which distinctively contradict what Cinéma vérité aims to do, Stories We Tell maintains the expression of the vérité technique via the implementation of naturalistic techniques that allow insight into the process of the documentary development allows a sense of authenticity for the audience to rely on; observational, documentary-style filmmaking that feels “real” (MasterClass 2019).
The prevalence of this feature comes into play as subtle glimpses which unveil and strip formal layers of film production to reveal deliberate inclusion of interviewees thinking out loud or asking for clarification on what to answer- Michael’s uncensored reaction to being asked to retell his entire story with Diane, shots of Sarah telling Michael to re-narrate on several occasions, third camera view into the inner working of the archival footage ‘reconstruction’- emitting objectivity, allowing the audience to directly connect with the subject and form their own opinions rather than having it interpreted for them (Leonard 2019). 
However, pertaining to this documentary in specific, the application of cinéma vérité techniques alongside interviews and pure and manipulated archival footage leaves only the impression of having formed those opinions, as to integrate interviews and archival footage, cancels out the novel intentions created by the cinéma vérité technique, and instead only exists to give off the impression of autonomy, and so the film tailors itself to fit the nature of Cinéma vérité that distinguishes said genre as being objective and authentic, and uses those features in alliance to Polley’s manipulation of impartiality, presenting only the idea of an unbiased film. This not only guarantees the audience reaction to be par with what Polley had intended, constructing the narrative of her mother’s character and actions to be widely understood and unquestionable, but also allows for direct engagement between filmmaker and subject (Axmaker 2015), making the documentary immersive and fulfilling. 
Overall, Polley’s equipment of documentary techniques such as the inclusion of interviews, archival footage and a cinéma vérité approach, validates Bill Nichols’ argument that the documentary genre presents a representation of the world, rather than a reproduction (Nicholas 2001), as Polley establishes her voice as a mediator in the retelling of Diane’s character, therefore her actions, leading to an unsuspected subjective interpretation of her mother’s doings, persuading her audience that regardless of her control and dominance on the film production, what the audience concludes from their viewing is the objective truth.

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