“Stories We Tell” Isn’t New, But It’s Worth a Watch

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Stories We Tell is a 2012 genre-bending documentary from director Sarah Polley. I recall being intrigued by the film trailers, but never made my way to the theaters to see it at the time of its release. A fortuitous sighting of the DVD in my local library led me to check it out this week, and I am so glad that I did.

In the film Polley brings together her siblings, father, and friends of her family, to explore the past in ways that are both seamless and contradictory, each individual weaving their own narrative threads to form a story much more complex than perhaps even Polley envisioned at the outset.

The subject? Well, one the one hand it is Polley’s deceased mother, Diane, whom the director lovingly brings to life through family stories and lots of colorful family video footage (and how glorious much of that is!). On the other hand, however, the subject is truth itself, and how elusive and malleable it inevitably is.

A Search for the Vagaries of Truth

Ultimately, Polley seeks to explore the past primarily through personal history interviews of those involved in her mother’s life, and to come as close as she can to some kind of truth.

“Can you tell the whole story from beginning to end, in your own words?” Sarah asks each of her subjects as prelude to her interviews.

Those interviews begin almost innocuously, with some discomfort at the prospect of delving into family secrets amidst bits of embarrassed laughter. But Polley deftly draws out the stories in a most compelling way, and we are privileged to be witnesses to a gradual unfolding of truths that feels especially intimate.

We are drawn into her mother’s story—into the dramas of infidelity and the banality of everyday life. And while that drama is captivating, it is the rather meta exploration of getting to the story—of watching it reveal and fold back in on itself—that makes this film a true gem, in my opinion.

“I am interested in the way we tell stories about our lives,” Polley says in one scene. “About the fact that the truth about our past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down. And many of our stories, when we don’t take proper time to do research about our pasts, which is almost always the case, end up with shifts and fictions in them, mostly unintended.”

Watch the trailer for Stories We Tell.

Concentric Circles of Experience

Polley began conducting interviews and filming of her family members before she had a clear sense of what the project might become. Would it even be released, or remain a private undertaking? Through five years of production she let the stories speak for themselves.

In a letter to one of the players, Harry, she wrote: “I wouldn’t even pretend at this point to know how to tell [this story] beyond beginning to explore it through interviews with everyone involved, so that everyone’s point of view, no matter how contradictory, is included.”

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“Why is that we talk and talk, or at least I certainly do, without somehow conveying what we’re really like?”

—Michael Polley

But is giving everyone’s perspective equal weight truly the best way to get to the truth, Harry wonders? Those who were “direct witnesses to the events” are more reliable narrators, after all, are they not? Or are the peripheral reactions and relationships that contribute to a family’s entire narrative all worthy?

These questions are explored and alluded to throughout, giving weight to the film and making Sarah Polley’s late appearance in the film all the more powerful. Particularly near the end, when Sarah herself begins to ruminate on why she feels compelled to tell this story and expose it to the world, the telling is eloquent and moving and raw in a most beautiful—and recognizable—sense.

Who owns these stories? Is there one version of personal history?

Polley’s brother Michael wonders aloud that while doing an interview might bring you as close to truth as you can get, does Sarah’s editing of it turn it into something different?

The questions amidst the stories are at the heart of Stories We Tell. What questions will they raise for you?

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