The response to Stories We Tell, a highly personal documentary by actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley, has been overwhelmingly positive since the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival last year, so I was properly primed before I saw it at New Directors/New Films and was surprised by my curiously split reaction. On a structural level the film is impressive — though it’s essentially a family history, it’s a formally ambitious work that challenges conventions of that type of storytelling. The five years it took Polley to complete the film have paid off, its potential chaos contained and strapped to a kind of narrative through the skillful editing of interviews, home movies, and canny recreations. Polley is pretty fearless about questioning her subjects — relatives and close family friends — even jokingly referring to it in the film as “an interrogation process.” But though she’s at the center of the drama, Polley herself seems absent from the story, to the extent that the film could have been titled Stories They Tell. She has said she needed to define her role as “the explorer and the filmmaker” in order to feel justified in making the film, and what we see of Polley in the film is not a daughter, but a director at work.
The more obvious missing presence is Sarah’s mother Diane, who died from cancer when Polley was only eleven. If the film has a ‘subject’ it would be Diane, an apparently lively, attractive woman who met her husband Michael while both were acting in a play. She fell for the talented actor, and they soon married and started a family. But, as several people candidly indicate, Michael turned out to be less ambitious and more introverted than Diane had hoped, and she was disappointed in the relationship. Several years later she spirited off to Montreal to act in a play, during which her romance with Michael did recover somewhat, and when she returned she discovered she was pregnant with Sarah. The central drama of the film is the question of what exactly happened while Diane was in Montreal — a longstanding family joke about how little Sarah resembles Michael eventually led Polley to investigate the matter further. Stories We Tell is in itself a kind of recreation of that journey, though Polley already knew the outcome when she began making the film.
In the end, the secrets that Stories We Tell unveils are not as interesting to me as the experience of the film itself. I was taken aback by the probing, thoughtful interviews Polley is able to conduct with her own siblings and father about the past (Michael calls her a “vicious director”). A close family with performance in their blood, there’s an honesty and also a theatricality to their interviews that indicates how comfortable they are on screen. That’s not to say there aren’t tense or sad moments — it’s only later in the film that we learn some of Polley’s siblings are from Diane’s contentious first marriage, and that Polley and all of her sisters have gotten divorced in the aftermath of these revelations. These threads are striking for the darkness they hint at, but Polley folds these tender moments into the flow and doesn’t follow where they might lead. Though I wanted a more emotional catharsis, I can appreciate that in a formal sense Polley’s film is a cooler, more cerebral examination of memory and identity. In Stories We Tell, memory isn’t fixed: it’s constantly being recreated in the immediate moment by the storyteller. The film doesn’t advance a particular construction of ‘what happened,’ but rather fragments of what’s remembered, recalling Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”