The Stories We Don’t Tell


Let’s start at 4.13, a woman with a strong, Scandinavian face and big 60s hair stares out woodenly from a dark, grained, three by four frame. Suddenly she speaks, and her face comes alive, with charm, with engagement, with a particular kind of homely seduction.

“Me, do you want me? Oh I’m sorry.” She says with a wry and cheeky twist to her smile, the dark pits of her eyes shining, in a kind of Sally Field at the 1980 Oscars moment.

One moment of performance, an awards show, after the fact of the film, the other a screen test, before, and yet otherwise remarkably similar. In the former, a fictionalised, indeed weaponised account of a real woman who rescues her daughter from an oppressive, patriarchal, enemy, regime, given highest honour; in the latter, a nonfictionalized account of a mostly imaginary woman who is rescued by her daughter from a similar condition of ignoble erasure. In both, a woman must efface her true self, in disguise, in obfuscation, eyes only occasionally meeting ours through the veil, to reform her image, to rescue herself. Throughout Sarah Polley’s film, it is only in those liminal, pre-performative silences where something like the truth beyond our narrative constructs emerges.


At 38.30, in an email exchange narrated in the originator’s own voices, Sarah Polley arranges to meet Harry Gulkin, at a city café, in her quest to rescue the memory of her mother. “I always remember my Mom spoke of you with such affection,” she says. While a ragtime piano score recalling the light, farcical melodramas of the silent era plays, the meeting between the two is reproduced in the grainy, over-dark, over-saturated colours of Super 8 film. The drama is revelatory; there is an instant connection between the two, and one imagines gleaming twirled moustaches and the back of a hand raised to a lead-white brow in shock and feint (and I do mean feint), as, through the course of the conversation, Harry eventually reveals he is Sarah’s father.

However, it is not the drama of the scene that is important, but the means of its representation. Leah Anderst (2013), in an article that is mostly wishful thinking, describes Polley’s overall method as one of “choral autobiography” that democratises and lends “equal weight” to each voice, and this scene in particular, where the performers perform themselves, to represent – documentary style, recent events, as a “partial simulacrum”, as if such a thing could ever actually exist. I suppose the assumption is, capturing something in grainy mocked up super 8 film convinces us the way Schrodinger’s Cat does; that until we actually observe the cat, we do not know if it is dead or alive. In this case Schrodinger’s Sasquatch, perhaps, as the grainy film that we would normally find so unconvincing, is, in this case a partial simulacrum, its actual state can neither be observed, nor ignored; Sasquatch must, therefore, despite being in a quasi state, must be real. This is just an elaborate why of demonstrating that the implication of the partially simulated, is necessarily the partially real. The entire formulation, with its obvious anachronisms, (because even in 2013, when this meeting took place, it is fairly certain that both father and daughter had camera phones in their pockets capable of immeasurably superior sound and resolution) is fairly disingenuous.

Anderst (2013) says, “Although the viewer must realize that the “original” of the scene was never filmed, Polley gestures toward the style of those types of archival footage that are most often taken as evidence in documentary films.” I’m not sure exactly wha documentary films Anderst is referring to. The Zapruder film is perhaps the only Super 8 film I can think of with any evidentiary significance, and again that film obscured more than it revealed. Most home movies are depict distinctly artificial moments, so for a more accurate representation, let us cut “gestures” and splice in “dissembles”.


Thus the implication of the term, partial, is that another, unrevealed part is not simulated, but residing, with edges only slightly blurred, firmly in the bounds of the real. Let us loosen the grip on our own meaning, discarding the forensic precision of a high definition for the grained and indistinct frame of reference of cinema verité, wher “partial”, does not mean a part thereof, but rather, biased, slanted, taking the part of. When one takes a part, even when that part is truth, one puts on costume, and performs.

Gulkin and Polley sit at a table. He eats soup, she films, or parodies filming with a handheld Super 8 camera. It is a scene with a sense of ease; an intimate, familial scene. Various prostheses, of life, of film-making, are scattered in foreground and background; tripods, light stands, a vodka bottle. On the wall is what appears to be a window, sectioned and framed in small bright squares. In the periphery we see Sarah’s reflection move, and realise; this is a mirror, not a window, and therefore, in its relation to light, obtuse, not transparent. Do these many small framed views make what Anderst thinks of as a “chorale”, or rather, does truth remain small, discrete, impenetrable reflections, that return only what they already contain?

 The archive is not the history, and it is certainly not the reality, nor is it even evidence of much, beyond that an archivist chose to arrange materials and recordings in a particular order to create some sort of semblance. Anderst (2013) finds in the conflicts of such an arrangement as Polley has produced, that we have been given “access a multivalent, plural truth”, but if truth is a multivalent , plural representation – does it stop being truth?

Impossibly, Polley turns the mimed camera on us, where we are positioned, perhaps just on the cusp of the imagined proscenium. Are we, therefore, auditioned, captured, transfigured, fictionalised, reduced, bastardised, abandoned and honoured?
Or captivated in the gloss of that small piece of deluded acetate, are we now reduced to the merely observed?

Anderst, L. (December 2013) Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography, Senses Of Cinema, accessed 21 May 2021

Polley, S. (director) (2012) Stories we tell [motion picture], National Film Board Of Canada, Canada.