Stories We Tell, the latest documentary out on DVD from Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley, is an intense exploration of the storytelling process and how it builds and changes meaning. Through interviews with her family members and friends of her parents, Polley attempts to reconstruct a vision of her mother, actress Diane Polley, who passed away in 1990.
The result is a documentary that offers a unique window into the process of negotiating with the truth, especially when removed from it by several decades. An amazing range of emotions and experiences is dredged up in Polley’s intimate interviews, where the audience is allowed to focus solely on the interviewees.
This intimacy with the interviewee is precisely what takes Stories We Tell from being a straightforward documentary about one woman’s life to a fascinating exploration of what it means to know the truth. In some cases, the interviews are simply heartbreaking. Polley’s older brother and sister, who were taken away from their mother at a young age, express particularly painful memories that add a deep melancholy to the narrative.
Polley’s skill at balancing these darker moments with ones of hope, even if tentative, is striking. Her editing and line of questioning never seem designed to manipulate the viewer into believing one thing or another. Instead, we’re confronted by the difficulties of storytelling and truth.
Polley’s particular line of questioning opens up the possibility that she might focus on only three or four key people who were involved in her mother’s life in the late ‘70s, yet she chooses to talk to even those who were on the periphery of the movie’s main event. By doing so, she shows the viewer that every decision one makes is intimately connected to those with whom we share our lives. What’s even more interesting is how rich the portrait of her mother becomes when she chooses to interrogate a wide swathe of friends and family members.
This central mystery of the story—the event in Polley’s mother’s life that she is really trying to examine—hits the viewer first as part of an ongoing family joke. It’s only later that we realize the real gravity of what Polley is examining. It’s a powerful reminder that painful truths are often obscured by the jokes made about them.
Because she never uses her own narrative power to comment on this process of obscuring the truth, we’re allowed to really think about how it happens in general, not only how it is happening in the story unfolding before us. Stories We Tell creates a dialogue between the viewer and the narrative that lasts long after the DVD has been turned off and put away.
What makes the film stick with the viewer is not so much the intrigue of Polley’s family story, but the multiplicity of viewpoints from which this intrigue can be examined. As we hear the interviewees relating very different memories of the same event, it becomes clear that maybe truth isn’t as definite as we thought.
The candidness of the interviewees becomes particularly powerful in these moments because we understand that they are sure no version of the story could contradict their version. In fact, some interviewees were so certain of this that they suggested Sarah might focus only on them. It’s fortunate that she didn’t, relying instead of a whole web of individuals to weave her family’s story.
It’s difficult to say too much about Stories We Tell because it’s important that the viewer comes to the narrative without a very concrete idea of why Polley began making the film. The surprises that are hidden in this seemingly normal story about an average family make for viewing as good as any suspense-thriller.
To balance this heavy sense of mystery against the relative banality of daily life is a true achievement. Polley navigates the gap between our memories and our inability to ever really reconstruct the past with grace and determination. Hers is a film that matters not only because of its narrative content, but because of the inexpressible emotions to which it gives space.