Memories have a way of perverting the truth. Over time, we idealize past events to better suit our present and recount them to so many others that the memories become altered, like in a game of telephone. Each person can interpret the same event differently, thus begging the question: what is the real truth? Sarah Polley makes a thoughtful examination of memory and interpretation in her film Stories We Tell, a masterfully constructed documentary through which she looks for answers to an important part of her own life: her true parentage.
Polley weaves together interviews with her family members, as well as intimidate narrations and Super 8 footage in attempt to piece together the intricate “whole story” of the past. Though that past that is admittedly shaped by it’s director and therefore not as objective as it may seem.
Polley is the daughter of famed Canadian stage actors Diane and Michael Polley. Her parents fell in love after appearing in a play together, despite being very different people – Diane was loud and convivial, always throwing parties, and Michael was more reserved and responsible, eventually putting his stage work aside for a more steady job in insurance. Over the course of their marriage, Diane started to feel somewhat neglected by Michael and had an affair around the time that Sarah was conceived. Complicating matters, there was more than one candidate.
Diane died of cancer when Polley was only eleven, and a joke began around the dinner table that Polley wasn’t Michael’s biological daughter. Polley became fixated on the idea and began contacting friends of her mothers – as well as potential father candidates – who might know the truth. The film then unfolds into Polley’s pastiche of her mother’s, as well as her own, history, and how it is filtered through the eyes of her loved ones.
Since Diane died when Polley was so young, the film almost serves as a composite of other peoples’ recollections of her. She says many times to her interviewees in the film that her film is about memory, so in a way, she is constructing memories of a woman that she didn’t have the chance to know as well as other people in her life. Given that her mother was a fairly well-known actress, Polley is supplied with a lot of footage of her mother, which she inter-cuts with the various interviews.
She blurs the line of documentary and fiction though with staged Super 8 footage with actors playing her family, specifically of her parents. It’s almost an idealization, on her part, of her mother’s ebullient nature, of memories that would be impossible for her to have firsthand. She romanticizes this history with the footage further enriching her central examination of how people perceive memory. She can’t exactly interview herself, so this footage, as well as the finished product of the film, serve as an indicator of how she perceives the past and how she shapes it for her own consumption.
Polley further underlines the constructed sense of memory through the framing device of her father Michael at a recording studio, reading his memoirs of meeting Diane as well as the events that followed. She even tells her father, point blank, that he is recording in a recording studio so that it reads in the film as being “constructed.” Yes, Michael wrote the words that he is saying, taken from his direct recollections of the past, but Polley frequently makes Michael re-record certain lines, making him put special emphasis on certain words. This is a rather brilliant maneuver for it accomplishes many things. For one, memories are constructed from bits and pieces of recollections, like the different part of her film. Though they can be altered, ever so slightly as Polley does by directing her father, to give them a somewhat different angle.
What is especially lovely about this film is also out of Polley’s control: the deep love that each family member has for each other, as well as the fond memories that they do share of their mother. Polley’s interviews with her family are done seriously, and often render tears, but there are many nice little moments of familial interviewees seeing not a filmmaker but a kid sister, a daughter. Her older half brother, casting director John Buchan, even laughs and calls her an “asshole” at one point. Yes, the film is constructed and yes, memories are constructed, but there’s just so much you can alter genuine human emotion, which is clear to see in this film.
Even though Diane’s infidelity became widely known in the family, it is also refreshing that none of her children ever judged for it. Rather, they were happy that their mother was so loved. The temptation of marital infidelity, specifically the feeling of being trapped in an aura of being “comfortable” in a marriage, is evident in Polley’s most recent narrative film, Take This Waltz. Polley is such an important emerging female voice in cinema, since she provides an unparalleled, nonjudgmental viewpoint towards her female protagonists (in this film, her mother serves as the main protagonist, so to speak). They are free to have sexual desires, and they do not have to suffer any sort of stigma that is attached to that.
Stories We Tell is ultimately celebratory of family, of life. It deals with some heavy emotional material, but no one comes out of the experience of digging into Polley’s family history with hurt feelings. Instead, the bonds of family are strengthened more than ever before. Polley frequently draws attention to the artifice of memory through how she constructs her film, how “ambiguous” the truth can really be due to how a given individual processes certain memories. Polley does indeed find out who her father is, but that is almost inconsequential. There is a marriage of art and happenstance as she digs through the past and discovers the “truth,” and she mirrors that beautifully in the finished product that is this film.
The Upside: The exceedingly intriguing examination of how different people absorb different truths; Polley blends documentary and fiction in a seamless, artful fashion
The Downside: Some might read the film as self-indulgent or overly “meta.”
On the Side: Sarah and Michael Polley costarred on the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, which chronicled the trials and tribulations of a Shakespeare theater company.