For the first five minutes of Sarah Polley’s gripping and deeply moving documentary, Stories We Tell, we see a number of people preparing to be interviewed on camera. Nervous and visibly uncomfortable, they wait for Polley to ask her first question:
“I am going to ask you now to tell the whole story - as though I don’t know the story - from the very beginning to the very end.”
Their reaction is one of overwhelm. One interviewee, a man called Harry, says: “I guess I’d better pee first” - our first clue that the story of Polley’s family is long and complex. It is also the first hint of the film’s gentle sense of humour.
Stories We Tell is a deeply personal exploration of Sarah Polley’s family. As Polley unravels (detective style) the mysteries of her childhood, she reveals an intimate and intriguing collection of memories about the mother, Diane, she lost aged just 11 years old.
However, when asked what she thinks about the documentary, Polley’s sister Joanna answers: “I guess I have this sort of instinctive reaction of, like, who f***ing cares about our family... right? Can I swear?”
During the five years that it took Polley to make her documentary, she also struggled with the idea of making a film about her family. In a blog post published shortly before Stories We Tell was released, the director admitted that personal documentaries made her squeamish. “I’ve seen some brilliant ones, but they often push the boundaries of narcissism and can feel more like a form of therapy than actual filmmaking.”
What sets Stories We Tell apart from other perhaps more self-involved documentaries is how Polley digs deeper and examines more universal questions - exploring the power of stories, the act of storytelling, the concept of truth and the elusive nature of memory.
Polley avoids any sense of narcissism in Stories We Tell by deciding not to include first person narration. Instead, she gives everyone’s story equal weight. There is no doubt that she is in control, but she is also happy to let different versions of the same story sit together with little exposition or judgement.
In her blog post, Polley explains that what she most wanted “was to examine the many versions of this story, how people held onto them, how they agreed and disagreed with each other, and how powerful and necessary creating narrative is for us to make sense of our bewildering lives. I wanted the story told in the words of everyone I could find who could speak about it.”
This approach does not sit well with all of her interviewees. Harry states that he doesn’t like the idea of giving every version of the story equal weight: “You can’t ever touch bottom with anything then. We are all over the place.”
It is at this point that we sense just how important these stories are to Polley’s storytellers. For better or worse, this is how they frame their lives and process their experiences. All the storytellers feel protective of their recollections - these stories are theirs to tell.
As we hear a range of contrasting accounts about her mother and discover the mysteries of Polley’s wider family, we start to think about the truth. Who was Diane? What secrets did she keep? Which story should we believe?
Polley’s genre twisting, multi-layered directing style - including her use of multiple cameras, interviews, memoirs, archive footage and photographs - reveals that the “truth” is complex and fallible in her story and, indeed, in all stories.
Stories We Tell concludes that the truth is an attractive but, ultimately, elusive concept and, therefore, is less important. There will always be many versions of the same story - and they all can be true. What is more important and more interesting is the act of storytelling and the healing power of stories.
As a result, in answer to Joanna’s question, we care about the Polley family because they tell a remarkable tale in an incredibly engaging way and also because, through their storytelling, we understand the importance of the stories in our own lives.