“When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all”. This is the line that introduces Canadian Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), a deeply personal yet shrewdly alluring examination of the art of storytelling. Thrusting her own family under the microscopic glare of her inquisitive camera, Polley’s lovingly-crafted patchwork of interviews, home movies and nostalgia-tinged narration builds to an emotional crescendo that whisks you away on your own personal journey down memory lane. Stories We Tell is both a heartfelt and immensely playful study about the elusiveness of the truth that asks if facts really are that important.
Polley coaxes her father, Michael, to narrate his own interpretation of their family’s intertwining paths (initially a deceptively simple profile of Sarah’s late mother, the actress Diane Polley) whilst talking head segments from the rest of the clan fill in the gaps, leading to a hunt for the director’s genuine biological father. As it transpires, Stories We Tell is less about unearthing the actualities of the past and more about deconstructing these memories and subjective viewpoints in order to understand their importance to the individuals telling them – with each narrator revealing their own ethical and personal reasons for distorting their personal history.
Genuinely touching and, on numerous occasions, indisputably heartrending, Stories We Tell may be extremely introspective, yet the themes and issues evoked here are truly and emphatically universal. Focusing on the role of her now-deceased mother and how her death (and the actions which preceded it) affected the entire family dynamic, Polley elicits candid and entertaining interviews from her incredibly personable kin. “Never speak ill of the dead”, is a phrase that sums up the film’s relationship towards its absent matriarch; yet, whilst respectful in its movements, the documentary is littered with unapologetic honesty, provoking both laughs and tears in almost equal measure along the way.
A narrative tinged with great sadness and joy, this charming tale highlights how our once-trivial past actions can resonate more prominently as time goes by, whilst certain momentous occasions can become easily manipulated. Polley’s intimate documentarian style allows us to reflect on how our own personal histories can become a subjective text full of embellishments and falsities, with Stories We Tell beautifully highlighting our inherent need to share our most private secrets – perhaps for fear that they’ll fade away into our mind’s abyss if not forced into the foreground.
Eschewing any tangible sense of narcissism, this delicately poignant film is an elegantly-composed symphony of nostalgia and reflection. As a well-versed raconteur of cinema in all its many guises, Stories We Tell is clearly a form of creative catharsis for Polley. Yet through its clarity and sincerity her documentary gathers greater meaning, transcending its humble origins and effortlessly enrapturing the audience with its bittersweet tale of love, loss and life immemorial.