Whatever else one takes away from the documentary Stories We Tell, it demonstrates that objective truth is not necessary for honesty. It occurred to me towards the end of the film, the thought being prompted very directly by the film itself, that we are in the mercy of the filmmaker, Sarah Polley. Sarah’s elderly father says as much – what she recorded, the no-doubt endless hours of interviews and other footage, could then be freely edited by her to portray any reality she wishes. The impression we get, however, is that the choice made is to create as honest an account of the events of Sarah’s birth, early life, and the circumstances of her conception as possible, while still erring on the side of sensitivity to the people affected directly by the story.
The film begins with Sarah Polley, the director, asking her family members and family friends, separately, to tell all they could recall about her mother. The remembrances are universally kind, but right away one can see divergences in the different stories. It isn’t that the differences are particularly important or jarring ones; it’s simply the different perspectives, and indeed the presence of the differences that is the focus of the film. Soon, we feel we know the family and are forming relationships with it. Which is why the several reveals later on are surprising, if not particularly jarring. There is nothing ground-shakingly unusual in any of the events retold, really. All of the emotional impact here is due to the importance of the events to the people in this family, and our ability to identify with them.
As the family chronicle grows in depth, it also gains focus. As one of the interviewees points out, without it, of course, it would be jarring, one would never touch the bottom of it. The presence of the other characters is more of a story telling device, the film makes no secret of being about a very specific situation, and its aftermath. Neither does the viewer feel cheated, however; it would be absurd of any film to include on-screen the story of every background character, as genuinely like-able as some of the siblings, for example, are.
I must admit at this point that I was disappointed to learn, during the end credits, that the Super 8 camera footage, in the style of home-movies, was recreations, and not actual shots of the principal characters from thirty years ago. We, unfortunately, were simply not lucky enough to have such a wealth of documentation of the events documented. If anything, however, the fact I was fooled shows the extraordinarily convincing nature of those shots, made to look and feel exactly how such home films would. They stand as an absolute testament to the prowess of Sarah Polley as a director – as well as the actors portraying the various characters. Considering how enormously personal the nature of the material was to the young director, this film is an astounding achievement for her, and I look forward greatly to seeing what she will do next. Though I admit I am not familiar with her previous work, such as Take This Waltz (2011), I will be sure to check that out as soon as possible.
All of the narrative is tied together brilliantly by the narration of Michael Polley, the director’s father, who also happens to be one of the principal players of the film. The memoir is, interestingly, written in the third person, giving it an air of objectivity. This, of course, is an illusion, given what I’ve already described, as it also is subjective. Like the director herself, however, the writer here is able to give himself just enough perspective, perhaps by treating himself as another character, to look at the situation very fairly and honestly; even if, once again, the account is certainly fallible and one-sided. The narrative gives the film structure and cohesion it would otherwise lack, without being expository or over-explicative.
If it seems like I’m dancing around revealing the ultimate mystery at the core of the film, I apologize. I simply feel that the you, as a potential audience member, should be allowed to go in fresh, knowing as little as possible. This is the proper way to enjoy the film. Not because Stories We Tell hinges on some enormous twist; the reveal is not that the main character was a ghost all along, or something dumb like that. It’s just that I enjoyed myself watching the film knowing very little about it so much, that I would feel I am doing you a distinct disservice in saying too much. So, I will avoid that mistake now, and will simply tell you to watch for the film in the Oscar’s nominations lists for 2014.