Stories We Tell (2012). USA, 108 minutes. Directed by Sarah Polley. Starring: Michael Polley, Sarah Polley, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley, John Buchan, and Susy Buchan.
I walked into Stories We Tell with the highest of expectations based on the film’s topic and on the uniformly glowing reviews it has received. While such a scenario is often a harbinger of disappointment, in this case the film lived up to my own hype. Sarah Polley has worked as a film and TV actor since she was a child. As a director, her most acclaimed project is Away From Her, a melancholy tale of love in the face of aging that resulted in an Academy Award nomination for star Julie Christie. As Polley turns the camera toward her own family history in Stories We Tell, it is hard not to wonder the extent to which her experience being an actor and directing other actors influences her engagement with those who are now before her camera. In this documentary, Polley seems to ask: To what extent do we perform our personal storytelling and how is that performance transformed when a camera lens is trained on us? The film begins with a quote by Margaret Atwood about how as we live through what will eventually become our stories, we experience them in a chaos that only falls into narrative order once we turn the past into something we can tell ourselves and others. How are our original experiences transformed as we craft our stories? Polley uses her family history to attempt to, if not quite answer that question, at least show us a profound and affecting example of storytelling in action that will help us generate our own answers.
At face value—if such a phrase can be used about this film—Stories We Tell is a documentary about Polley’s mother, Diane, who died when Polley was eleven, leaving behind an enigma regarding her daughter’s parentage. Over two decades later, Polley tells the story of her attempts to find out who her biological father is. In the process, she resurrects her mother through home videos and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues.
As Polley searches for her biological father and tries to recreate her mother, the film explores the tensions that emerge between the lives we long to live and the contradictions those longings carry within them. We watch as Diane is unable to reconcile her romantic, maternal, and professional desires. Lives tumble in the wake of these inconsistent yearnings, the repercussions reverberating decades after she passed away. This is also a story about identity and how who we are is fastened to the genetics of our biological parents and to the love we receive from and feel toward those who raised us, whether or not we share their DNA. Polley, whom we at times see and hear asking questions and in turn answering the questions of her interviewees, is trying to figure out how this story affects who she is and who she will become. She never sits down before the camera to tell her side of the story because this documentary is her side of the story. The footage she has collected and the way in which she has pieced it together is her voice.
One of the interviewees tells Polley that he doesn’t think this story can be told in the collective manner she’s decided upon. For him, art is about reaching the truth, and the truth can only be told by those who experienced events firsthand. He feels that only he can tell the truth in this case. Polley does not answer him, at least not on camera. Her documentary, however, creates such a compelling portrait of her mother and her mother’s legacy that viewers may be willing to sacrifice the truth for the sake of this messier, more complex version of what may have happened. Of course, Polley is also arguing that there is no truth about a situation but rather a collection of versions that are liable to change with time. Unless they are captured on film, that is. Stories We Tell is also a meditation on filmmaking and the power of moving images to preserve, discover, and shape our memories.
While the interviews are filmed in pristine definition, the home videos overwhelm the screen in grainy, Super 8 glory. Nothing is well defined in the past. Handheld, unstable, amateurish, and loving, the home videos remind us that the past is a construction. The home video images are repeated throughout the film and take on new meanings as we learn different pieces of the story and better understand, Diane, the woman who can only speak through those grainy images. One of the film’s most startling revelations comes in the form of these videos. This viewer, at least, jumped in her seat.
One of the great pleasures of watching a documentary about a family is tracing the resemblances in the features and mannerisms of its subjects. This act of seeking and creating connections becomes more urgent in this case, as we ask the question that the family members themselves have asked for years: Just how much does Polley look like her siblings and the father who raised her? Viewers’ exploration of similarities between the interviewees’ faces is eventually replaced by contemplating another similarity between the film’s key players: their decency. Polley accomplishes the rare feat of telling an engrossing, edge-of-your-seat story about people who are kind and forgiving. There are no villains or antiheroes in this film in spite of the pain that pervades it. Instead what we find are multiple iterations of the earthshattering power of familial and romantic love. Grainy or pristine, handheld or on a tripod, the stories Polley tells hit you straight in the heart and then linger there, like Polley’s cryptic memories of her mother.