Filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley is used to being filmed, but her family are not. Polley’s latest film as director is a documentary about her family and as Stories We Tell begins she includes footage of her family members and friends of the family preparing to be interviewed. As they settle down in recording studios or in front of cameras with large boom microphones hanging overhead, many of Polley’s interviewees comment on how nervous, apprehensive and uncertain they are about what is going to take place. By including this footage Polley establishes that the documentary she is presenting is a construct that relies on emotional and potentially unreliable testimonies. So begins an extraordinary work that is both an intellectual examination into the nature of how cinema represents reality as well as a deeply moving personal project.
The narrative of Stories We Tell unfolds in a manner so that the audience discover the scope of the film, in terms of subject matter and critical discourse, as the film progresses. Even in the early stages of the film it is not precisely clear what specific story from Polley’s past will be explored. During the opening sequence introducing the family members preparing to be filmed, Polley repeatedly cuts to archival footage of a woman from a past era who is also preparing to speak into camera. Before too long we learn what we suspected, which is that this woman is a notable person absent from the family members Polley is interviewing: this woman is Polley’s mother and the subject of Stories We Tell.
Polley’s film uncovers significant revelations about her family’s history in relation to her mother. Accounts from the interviewees differ not so much in factual detail, but in terms of the weight in which they give to details and how those details are interpreted. Most fascinating is Polley’s father and throughout the film she includes both an interview with him and excerpts from him reading a prepared statement where he refers to himself in the third person. At times the accounts are deeply personal with Polley’s father acknowledging that he was not an ideal husband and her siblings pondering the sex lives of their parents. There are several scenes where Polley captures her brothers and sisters, possibly for the first time, realising and articulating their awareness that their parents were human beings with sexual and emotional needs.
While the mystery of Polley’s mother drives the film forward, her investigative process into her family’s history creates a discussion about the nature of storytelling, particularly in terms of how it applies to documentary. The film includes a quote from Margaret Atwood that says, ‘When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.’ As the film demonstrates this confusion is a natural outcome when the story is based on real life experiences because unlike a constructed narrative, these are stories that do not have a natural beginning, middle and end. The Atwood quote concludes by saying, ‘It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.’ It is the telling of the story that places the events into context in a way that makes sense.
Some of the participants, especially those with the strongest emotional ties to what Polley uncovers, challenge the validity of the film. These are people who are clearly very close and affectionate toward Polley, so their challenges are more philosophical than personal, but nevertheless they raise fascinating issues that Polley incorporates within the film. For example, how much weight should Polley give to the various versions of the stories she hears? Equal weight does not equal the truth because some accounts are going to be more reliable than others so how can Polley evaluate the worth of every account? And what is more reliable – accounts that are emotionally removed and therefore regarded as objective or the more personal accounts? One participant argues that the core story uncovered in the film belongs to them more than anybody else – how should Polley present that perspective? How much should Polley interrogate her own motives in making the film and should she confront the probability that she has concealed her motivations for making the film, even from herself?
Is Stories We Tell about bringing somebody back to life by capturing memories of them? This is a possibility considering Polley’s accomplished 2006 narrative film Away from Her, about how a marriage is redefined when the wife begins to lose her memory as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe Stories We Tell is in part Polley’s attempt to reconcile the dynamics of her parent’s relationships? This is also a distinct possibility considering the themes of her uneven yet in hindsight deeply personal 2011 film Take This Waltz. Is Stories We Tell just Polley’s quest for her own identity? Or is the film more an examination of the way we tell stories and the way we attempt to take ownership over particular stories?
A further element to consider is the inclusion of Super 8 archival footage, and then later reveals in the film about the nature of some of that footage. In many ways Stories We Tell recalls the cinematic tricky of Orson Welles’s 1975 documentary/film essay F for Fake about the nature of authenticity. However, while F for Fake is arguably more a skilfully constructed statement, the ‘trickery’ in Stories We Tell feels more like part of an on-going dialogue with the audience about the nature of how we experience ‘truth’ in cinema. In this way Polley’s film has more in common with Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliant 2010 narrative film Certified Copy, which successfully demonstrates that even reproductions, re-enactments and artificial representations of reality can be truthful and authentic. After all, the very nature of cinema is deceptive and manipulative, but that does not stop it from containing real emotional and intellectual power. In films like Stories We Tell that power is made all the more profound by the very fact that the film acknowledges and works with its artificiality. The cinematic magic is more pronounced when all the tricks are being exposed.
Stories We Tell is a remarkably accomplishment film by a deeply talented and courageous filmmaker. Despite – or because of – all the questioning and exposing of the mechanics of documenting the past, the results are a heartfelt tribute to family and personal identity. And yet it never feels indulgent; if anything Stories We Tell is an extremely generous film where Polley allows her personal experiences to be used in a way that allows the audience an opportunity for personal reflection and introspection into their own family and identity. The story is specific to Polley and those that know her, but the meaning and ‘truth’ of what those stories mean resonates far beyond the scope of film.