In terms of great documentary film viewing experiences, last night’s was up there with the best of them. Perhaps even topping my all time favorite trip to the cinema to watch ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ several years ago and that’s saying something because I wasn’t even sitting in the crepuscular elegance of my favorite London film house to watch ‘Stories We Tell’ last night. I watched it at home, on my bed, on a DVD.
‘Stories We Tell’ is a documentary film about that most personal of subjects: family. In this sense, it is a film that lots of you will relate to because invariably we are all part of that raggle taggle eco system that we call family. What this film illustrates so beautifully is that we all have our own points of view within that eco-system. We all have different versions of the truth, particularly when it comes to significant family events. We all experience things in different ways and none of those versions of the truth are more – or less – valid or honest than the other. One’s own truth is just that: the truth.
Most of us, without even thinking about it, construct stories from our truths and this is one of the themes that I enjoyed about this film. Everyone gets their turn. Everyone gets to tell their story. If filmmaker Sarah Polley were ever able to hire herself out, she could probably heal family rifts on a global level. Not, amazingly, that Sarah’s family, who are the focus of this film, appear to be at odds with one another. Somehow, and without wanting to give too much away, this family manages to navigate their way through the possibility that Sarah and several of her siblings may not share the father that they thought they had in common. Sarah could be someone else’s daughter but her mother, who is sadly no longer with us, cannot be consulted for the truth.
On a personal level, this last sentence pushes the most resonant of buttons because for me, the star of the show is the man who raised Sarah. He may or may not be her biological father but to all intents and purposes, he is her dad. As the daughter of a man who is not my biological father, I cannot say enough about a parent who is committed enough to love without the need for a shared blood type. In this sense, ‘the truth’ is neither here nor there. When it comes to tiny people, what matters is this: who is going to hold your hand and be there when you need them? Sarah’s dad may not be a man of many words. One can see why her vivacious mother might have had her head turned by a more demonstrative lover but this fag smoking Englishman’s devotion to his filmmaker daughter cannot be denied.
I won’t reveal more plot points. Except to say that this film is compulsive viewing and Sarah Polley makes it so with compassionate use of her camera, despite the fact that she is asking her family to remove their metaphorical clothing and reveal their tender underbellies to the public. But this is still a film that even those who stray away from intimate subject matter will get something from because it is so undeniably human, decent and familiar. It also uncovers a much more important truth…no family is perfect and this is so often the beauty of family. That despite our imperfections, hopefully we manage to muddle our way through and create new versions of the truth together, new versions of families and in the process, even new versions of ourselves. Sometimes it’s a shit storm and sometimes it isn’t but family can be a source of great hope and shit storms are part of growing up. All worth baring in mind as we head home from whence we came for Christmas.
At this point, I usually like to segue into the subject matter of this blog and somehow, tenuously find a connection between whatever I’ve been ranting about/loving and virginity loss. That isn’t going to be a challenge today because on a thousand different occasions, I have read your stories, no matter how dramatic, sad or funny and thought to myself, somewhere on this planet there is a person who could tell me a slightly different version of this story. I don’t mean to say that I disbelieve you. Merely that this is a version of the truth. There may be other versions.
As if to illustrate this point perfectly, here is a story from my book that has two, three actually, thinking about it, distinct sides. Only one is printed here but I’m guessing you will be able to recreate the others in your mind, particularly that of Gwynne's girlfriend. Perhaps in the process, you might be inclined to review your own past stories, and create new versions of them. Particularly those in which you may have cast yourself in a negative light, felt spurned or rejected because, as it turns out, there is definitely more than one side to every story.
At sixteen years old, Gwynne lost his virginity to a girl he barely knew at a party, despite the fact that he was in a happy relationship with his girlfriend of eight months. As a man of 24, he wrote and explained something to me that he should have told his (now ex-) girlfriend eight years previously:
‘My girlfriend and I were almost identical in age and sexual experience. We could spend hours in her room snogging and playing around. Over the eight months we eventually progressed to the point of genital touching, but were happy to take our time.
A couple of times during our playing-around sessions, it had got very heated and she would ask me if I wanted to have intercourse with her; I said no. This was for several reasons. I felt like intercourse should come further down the line when we were much more comfortable with each other’s bodies. I was a little scared too and protective of my virginity. While I would have been happy to do lots of other things, I wanted losing my virginity to be something really special.
There was a party organised for a friend from school’s birthday at their house and my girlfriend couldn’t make it. This wasn’t a problem; I had previously had no problems with restraint but was more than a little flirty and got on well with people from school. At the party I got chatting to a girl I didn’t know very well. She was quiet but I had always found her sweet and more than a little cute. She was a bit upset as things weren’t going well with her boyfriend, and I was happy to comfort her about it. I was happy to do a bit of hugging as it didn’t seem like I was breaking any rules (although of course I was!).
After a short while, she asked whether we could go upstairs to talk about it some more. I was enjoying being close to her, and my naïve brain didn’t put two and two together. I said ‘Of course’. We went into one of the upstairs rooms, it turned out to be a darkened spare room with a double bed taking up most of the space and we lay on it side by side still talking about her boyfriend.
After a while, the way she touches me changes. No longer is she wanting comfort hugs from me but instead, she is stroking my chest. After a while we are kissing, badly, and my head wasreeling. I had never even contemplated cheating on my girlfriend, and had previously always felt in control of situations but I seemed to be passively sleepwalking into it. She asks if we can lie naked next to each other and I agree. I still did not have any idea that anything other than a bit of snogging/hugging was about to happen, as strange as that sounds looking back on it.
As soon as we are both undressed, she climbs on top of me and pushes my penis into her. I lie there in shock, thinking how I don’t want this. As she starts moving her hips she tells me to ‘pull it out before you come’. I do not understand fully what this means, as I had never ejaculated before (except in my sleep), and lie there silent and still. As she continues to move her hips I blankly watch what she is doing, shocked at what is happening.
After a minute or two I come into her and my penis becomes limp. She stops and looks at me angrily. ‘What the fuck, did you just come in me?’ And all I can get out is ‘Sorry.’ A few seconds later, she realises that I am petrified. ‘Oh, you’re a virgin?’ she says with a mixture of anger and surprise. I nod. She turns on the main light in the room, hastily gets dressed and heads back downstairs to the party. After about five minutes I get dressed and wander outside to be alone. I manage to pull myself together to pretend nothing had happened and get back to the party.
The next day I arrange to meet with my girlfriend, she knows something is up due to my urgency on the phone. We meet in the park and I decide to tell her that I slept with someone at the party and give no details about it. She is distraught and runs home. With the help of my sister, I phone the girl from the party and ask her to take the morning-after pill. I’m really grateful for my sister’s unquestioning support.’
I asked Gwynne if he ever attempted to explain what really happened to his girlfriend. ‘No,’ he said. ‘My thinking at the time was that it would be easier for her to think that I was a complete bastard and forget about me rather than try and explain the (potentially implausible) situation. Perhaps it was a bad approach,’ he concluded, ‘but such is hindsight.’