The Story Justifies the Means: the Ethics of Manipulation in ‘Stories We Tell’

How to understand the ethical value of a documentary such as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), which focuses more on crafting rather than revealing a truth? Is crafting a truth more authentic than merely trying to expose it, like journalists do? Who or what defines the truth of the story, audience or storyteller? Such are the usual questions addressed by film scholars in relation to Stories We Tell: inquiries about the nature of truth and all the philosophical ramifications of that line of interrogation. Film critics, on the other hand, have raved and ranted about the storytelling technique displayed by Polley as a filmmaker and auteur, calling the documentary “one of her most successful efforts at reinvention” (Porton, p. 36), rarely casting light upon the matter of truth or ethical blindsides. Yet, right at the intersection of those two arguments, the epistemological and the authorial, stands out an ethical dilemma that permeates every aspect of the documentary, from inspiration and inception to execution and appreciation—was it ethical for Polley to manipulate everyone, from her family in the interviews to the audiences through the narrative, with Stories We Tell, an issue that troubles documentary filmmakers in general as scholar Jay Ruby suggests in his work “The Ethics of Image Making”? Did the story justify the means of telling it?

The answer seems to unfold in the first few scenes of the film, right before jumping into the story. First, Polley is seen guiding her father Michael to a sound booth and subsequently directing him in the recording of the scripted narration that’s meant to represent his experience and his feelings throughout the story, to which he quips that Polley will have the control as a director. Similarly, intercuts of Polley’s relatives setting up to be interviewed on camera also include comments about her power as a director and her control (aside from mentioning their different levels of nervousness about the project). There’s also one key shot amidst all of this: Polley personally using a 16mm camera to “switch” the viewpoint and film-look of the documentary, thus subtly foreshadowing her manipulation of that storytelling device throughout the film in the form covert reenactments that are meant to be confused for actual archival footage. By the end of this sequence of scenes, we’re ready to embark in the journey that Polley means for us to experience, and that’s the dual accomplishment of the conjunction of scenes: not only to set up all the gimmicks and “cacophony of voices” (as Polley herself later put it in an interview with Richard Porton) that will recur throughout and inform the film, but also to reassert Polley as the sole author with power over the telling of the story—Polley intends to chisel a truthful work of art, rather than acting as a journalist exposing the facts to an audience.

Therein lies the ethical value of Polley’s approach and manipulation of every single aspect of the narrative: it’s an ethical approach because she thus remains truthful to her artistic intent with the documentary, both in terms of depicting a very personal, revealing, and conflicting story (one of her mother’s infidelity and how that affected her identity and her family’s stability) and in terms of her determination to use this as a case study to explore and represent the role of memory in constructing our sense of self and belonging. As if Heidegger said “Art then is the becoming and happening of truth,” (p. 69) then Polley, as a creator of art, could be said to be entitled to any and all manipulation needed to bring forth that truth through her making of the work of art, since “Truth, as the clearing and concealing of what is, happens in being composed, as a poet composes a poem…All art…is, as such, essentially poetry” (Heidegger, p. 70). Therefore, manipulation may not only be ethical in that it allows a director, in this case Sarah Polley, to craft their poetic (from the Greek poesis: ‘to make’) truth—manipulation may also be ethical precisely because it allows the artist to find and stay within their ethos (Greek: “custom, character”). Considering that Polley has acknowledged that her primary goal for the film was to “[give] the audience an experience comparable to what the film is talking about” and that she was primarily interested in “storytelling and the way we construct stories” (Porton, p. 36), manipulation can be understood as both the main tool and a tacit goal for the author of the documentary.

In terms of her subjects, including Polley’s siblings, father, family friends, and Polley’s much-talked-about deceased mother Diane, the director’s decision to manipulate and control their narratives can be considered the most ethical approach amidst the myriad of points of view and different takes on “the truth” about Diane. In other words, since there exists a “cacophony a voices”, the best approach is to turn them into a chorus, like in a Greek tragedy, instead of giving lengthy soloes to the different players. All the players get to share their experiences and perspective on the truth about Diane; however, they’re all reacting to Polley’s interviewing them and are at the mercy of Polley’s editing decisions later in post-production (a detail that Michael, her father, points out repeatedly throughout the film). As Polley herself mentions within the narrative of the film after the big reveal about her biological father Harry, every interviewee owns and has right upon their experience, but no one owns the truth—particularly that regarding Diane or Polley’s own journey of self-discovery in the whole ordeal. Polley, as a director, chooses what bits and pieces to present from each viewpoint, which may be deemed as questionable, edging on censorship, and quite manipulative (in the most negative of connotations). Yet, at no point does she preclude or forbid any one from contradicting the narrative she’s constructing or declares it the ultimate truth—she does the opposite, reaffirming during a sequence in which she has an argument with Harry (who is more adamant about the nature and origin of truth and quite possessive about the ownership of Diane’s story) that as director she simply intends to construct the story as she has experienced it herself, with all its chaos, conflict, twists, turns, and life-altering reveals.

In terms of manipulating the audience, the biggest example of Polley’s conscious decision to do it derives from upending the documentary filmmaking tropes of dramatized reenactments and use of archival footage. By making a gimmick out of combining the two, Polley accomplishes several objectives with a single stroke, all which are directly related to her explicit artistic intent. First, by disguising the reenactments as archival footage, the audience loses the opportunity to misjudge the film as a docudrama of sort, for reenactments traditionally stand out as staple of lesser types of documentaries. In fact, playing this trick on the audience should be considered not only subtle but also elegant, for Polley accomplishes it just by adding a comment in the narrative stating that Diane and her husband used to make a lot of home movies with their 70s handheld camera—so the audience automatically assumes and accepts that copious amounts of intimate home movies available for the documentary (which are of course fake). Second, Polley infuses these fake pieces of “archival footage” with a voyeuristic charge that brings the audience closer to an intimate and private perspective of the story, thus mirroring that of the players in the story. Simply put, the “archival footage” makes the audience feel like they were there with Diane and her lovers—the audience knew Diane closely too, albeit just as misconstrued and constructed as those who did in real life. Third, revealing the true nature of the “archival footage” does allow the audience, as Polley suggested later, to reconsider the film more as an “essay film” or a “hybrid: something between a documentary and an experimental film” (Porton, p. 36) rather than a “self-indulgent, narcissistic exercise in therapy” (Porton, p. 36). The revelation about the documentary literally being a reconstruction rather than a recollection leaves the audience “constantly wondering what was real and what was not, what was nostalgia, what was fact” (Porton, p. 36), which can be taken as a refreshing approach to a genre generally associated with broadcasting facts, not questioning their veracity.

Ultimately, Polley’s manipulation of the entire story should be considered well within ethical boundaries because her artistic intent is to represent the phenomenon of memory and identity and highlight their highly unreliable and uncertain nature. If our identities, just like Polley’s, depend entirely on the memories of our past selves and our circumstances (paraphrasing David Hume), then the slightest change, possible from many different sources, in those memories can have disruptive ripple effects—which is precisely what Polley seeks to represent and make the audience experience in its different facets, since she went through that disruption herself.  For instance, there’s the noise generated by the “cacophony of voices”—who should we believe amidst the contradicting accounts of what Diane did and who she was? Naturally, different people in different positions view the same issue with different biases and opinions, which may or may not be wholly true at the same time. There’s the disruption generated by the distorting force of emotions: who is remembering Diane with rosy-colored glasses, or with resentment about her lies, thus modifying her memory and their recounting of events? Then there’s also misinformation and gaps in knowledge, such as unknown unknowns, which are respectively exemplified by the brief red-herring detour in the story about Diane’s other potential lover (and potential biological father to Polley) and by the big reveal about Diane and Harry’s love affair. Admittedly, Polley experienced all of the same revelations, her own peripeteia forcing her (and her whole family, really) to reevaluate her life, as suggested by Celia Lambert in “Sweet Little Lies” (p. 16), so Polley manipulates the story accordingly, taking the audience on the same messy journey afforded by the fickleness of memory and the frailness of identity. In a way, Stories We Tell stands out as an experiment of retelling the audience the story that Polley had to tell herself in the face of destiny (to put it in grandiose Greek tragedy terms).

By the end of Stories We Tell, and probably after a couple of repeat views and further analysis, the film ought to be considered not only ethical in the framing of its artistic intent but virtuous in its lying and manipulation because of their effect upon the audience. Without Polley’s authorial control, the figure and history of Diane would be plainly confusing among the “cacophony of voices” surrounding her rather than enticingly intriguing. Without Polley’s smart filmmaking subterfuges, the documentary may contain a lot more accurate facts, but would have far less artistic appeal and would reveal no truths, thus failing its poetic fulfillment. Without Polley’s determination and disposition to explore the intricacies of memory, identity, and our human condition, regardless of the personal pain, exposure, and family conflict it may cause, Stories We Tell would not stand out as a cinematic journey that leads audiences to the neglected territory of self-reflection through a piece that was supposed to be pure entertainment. And it was all a product of ethical manipulation that was somewhat and somehow beyond good and evil. All the players in the story were manipulated by Polley, yet they were all fully aware and at least willing enough to endure it. The audience is manipulated by Polley every time we watch the film, yet we (film critics and scholars included) praise her as a filmmaker and artist not in spite of but because of that accomplishment. Polley manipulated everything and everyone in Stories We Tell, herself included, and that was the right thing to do. In the end, perhaps the story does justify the means.



Works Cited

Center for Social Media. Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. School of Communication, American University. September 2009.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York, New York. 1971.

Hume, David.  A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford. 2000.

Lambert, Celia. “Sweet Little Lies.” Screen Education Issue #73. Pages 16-21.

Polley, Sarah. Stories We Tell (2012). USA.

Porton, Richard. “Family Viewing: An Interview with Sarah Polley.” Cineaste,  Summer 2013. Pages 36-40.

Ruby, Jay. “The Ethics of Image Making.” Issues of Ethics and Aesthetics.  Pages 209-219.


Dallas, TX. April 2016.

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