A quote from author Margaret Atwood is mentioned in Stories We Tell, the new feature documentary from Sarah Polley. It states, “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.” Never before has a quote been more perfectly connected to a film, for when Polley was in the middle of this story she must have been the most confused of all.
Without spoiling the secret (and if you can manage to avoid learning more about the subject matter, the more compelling this story will be), this film is part recounting a life and part revealing a family secret deeply rooted in the past. The life in question is that of Sarah Polley’s mother, Diane, who unfortunately passed away when Sarah was just a child. She left behind a legacy in stories and memories relayed to Sarah by her siblings. All of them remember her in a different way, but together they weave together a truth that changes Sarah’s life.
As Polley delves further and further into her mother’s past, she uncovers tales of her parent’s marriage, of her mother’s history as a stage actress, and of her siblings’ early memories many years before Sarah was born. All of this is put together in a gripping narrative, which unfolds into an exploration of life, and love, and the secrets we all keep.
In order to tell her story, Sarah employs the entire Polley family. Her father, her brothers, her sisters, as well as friends of Diane’s, all answer questions in what Sarah describes as “an interrogation”. Sarah herself never sits down in front of the camera and she doesn’t need to – the film itself is all she needs to tell her story, which she does successfully with grace and vulnerability. Between the ‘interrogation’ sessions, Polley paints a picture of her mother and the people around her with old, authentic Super-8 home video footage spliced seamlessly with reenactments portrayed by actors. Her father, the narrator, provides and eloquently written and spoken narration of events to complement the images.
Polley opens herself up further by giving us almost a documentary within a documentary. As well as exploring this family secret, she also takes us on the journey of her personal discovery of what this film will become. It’s interesting that from the start, she never knew what was going to happen to this footage. She had doubt and hesitation. Would it be released? Was this film just for her? What shape would it take? It seems she wasn’t quite sure whether or not she wanted to tell her story, or just make a film about how a story in itself develops. But, now completed, this tale has a well crafted, well paced beginning, middle and end, and we’re lucky to bear witness. It very nearly didn’t happen at all as a reporter almost blew this story for Polley before the film was even conceived. How close we came to losing a gem.
This is the third film directed by Polley, the previous two being Away From Her and last year’s Take This Waltz. And while this is a documentary, it still fits perfectly into her filmography. It is clear that Polley is still interested in exploring love in all forms, its selflessness and its selfishness, a theme present in all of her work. All the emotions of love and family life are present here on screen; guilt, sadness, joy, vulnerability. They all play a central role in our lives and in these films.
Stories We Tell is one family’s story, but it’s a detailed portrait of how stories unfold, and how events all affect us differently. The film provides a push for us all to look inwards and connect with our histories, our own narratives. We all have a multitude of stories to tell in our own lives, but Polley has been brave enough to share hers. We are all better for it.