How should I describe the Canadian actress/film-maker Sarah Polley’s acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell (2012)? Is it an earnest effort by the film-maker to piece together a portrait of her mother, who passed away when Polley was eleven? Or is it a search for an answer to the alleged family secret – using means of art to get at the truth? Or is it about coming to terms with a harsh truth – a sort of therapy? Or is about the elusive nature of human memories? The answer could be all and none; it may elicit admiration or aversion based on how we interpret it. Sarah Polley simply states that her film is about ‘our need to tell our stories and to understand them’. The first time I saw Stories We Tell I wasn’t very impressed. The plot description said that through series of interviews, Polley reveals truth about her family history. I am not the one who thinks, ‘Why should I watch a documentary made by a rich, white Canadian actress digging up her own past?’ but still I didn’t focus much to look through the smart layers, intertwined into a seemingly simple portrait of a mother. However, the second (and 3rd) time viewing have left me with a thought-provoking experience, enabling me to ponder over the documentary’s universal truth. Now I don’t think Stories We Tell is simply a film about well settled Polleys’ or just a pseudo-artistic exploration of memory; it’s much more than that – it asks ‘how would you shape your own story?’ ‘Forget about your objectivity on worldly matters and can you be anything but subjective when reiterating the legends in your own family?’ inquires this ingenious feature.
Director Polley is very much aware of the banality behind such a premise. So, despite opening the documentary with Canadian poet & novelist Margaret Atwood’s immersive words [“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness………..It’s only afterwards it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it to yourself or someone else?”] Polley shows us the slight artificiality inherent to this process. She frames the chief players (the family members) among the rigged cameras & mics, and asks them if they are nervous. She sort of breaks the fourth wall by introducing us the tale’s narrator – Michael Polley (Sarah’s father)—and even goes on to ask ‘who cares about our family anyway?’ The elder step-brother asks if the ‘angle is ok’; the elder sister drops in an ‘f-word’ and wonders if that's alright. These little awkwardness and hesitations hacks away at the clichés of this process, extracting a chuckle or two from us. Old Mr. Michael Polley reads the narration he has written, and in it he refers to himself in third person. At the center of this family tale is Diane Polley, the deceased mother – a beautiful blonde with an incandescent smile – seen in the grainy home movies.
Sarah’s siblings, father Michael, friends and relatives recall the free-spirited nature of Diane, who always had a smile on her and immensely adored by the children. Michael, the stage actor, recollects the day he met Diane backstage and how it developed into decade-spanning romance. The first half of the tale tells the character contradictions between the couple – Michael, a quiet introvert and Diane, a whirlwind with lot of friends. Sarah has used professional actors [the footage are shot on super 8] to enact friends’ & families’ memories about the relationship between the couples. Diane, who is also a Toronto-based stage actor, chased upon her dreams to perform for a play in Montreal, while Michael gave up on acting and writing to pursue a simple job. He took care of the children. Couple of Diane’s friends state how she was disappointed in Michael, who is very talented than her, but wasn’t interested to come out of his small circle. Diane’s trip to Montreal and Michael timely visit for the weekends, rekindles the passion which for a long time had been dormant. At the age of 42, Diane gets pregnant with Sarah and at the age of 53 she dies to cancer (since her mother passed away at the age of 11, Sarah has little idea about her mother’s past).
Later in the tale, the bitter ending to Diane’s first marriage is revealed (three of Sarah’s siblings are from Diane’s first marriage). Polley keeps on providing visual accompaniment about Diane (from the words of her friends) by celebrating the woman’s positively infectious spirit and also sharply observing her impulsive behavior. Then, there’s the tale’s chief element, which all started as a dinner table joke. Sarah’s elder brother has once overheard his mother’s phone conversation with an alleged secret lover. He also heard rumors that Michael is not Sarah’s biological father. As a pre-teen, Sarah is often teased by her siblings about how she doesn’t look like their Michael at all. This seed of doubt has grown big along with Sarah’s growth and at some point she conversed with her mother’s alleged lovers to find out if such rumors are indeed true. This search leads Sarah to Harry Gulkin, a producer with whom Diane has once worked. Out of nowhere, the old man on their first conversation has confessed that he is Sarah’s biological father. He thinks she would have already known this. Sarah comes across this truth in 2007 and confirms it with a DNA test, but reveals it to Michael only in 2009, after a reporter got wind of the fact.
Although the vexed family history of the Polley’s seems simple like that of a drama set on the suburbs, it has layers like that of an onion, thanks to Sarah Polley’s magnificent direction. Of course, it demands a lot of focus to peel through the onion layers to ponder upon its multi-faceted nature. With the grainy, jerky super 8 camera footage (contrived as well as the real one), the documentary makes us believe that it's searching for an elusive truth of a particular person. This elusive truth is not the kind we encountered in Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Rashomon”. The people interviewed are not providing contradictory details about Diane’s character. While films like “Rashomon” through dramatic means, profoundly contemplates on the nature of truth, limited by perspective, Stories We Tell looks at different aspects of a truth, conjured by memories, which itself is made by our ordinary emotional needs. Compared to bigger contradictions in the versions of truth in a dramatic movie, Polley’s real story just observes the small differences we make to retell a fact or a particular life incident. For example, Diane’s friends state how she knew that she’s gonna die soon, whereas Michael tells she didn’t know and recounts the day Diane started scraping and varnish or re-paint large tables – a project that would have taken weeks. “That’s a person who is still planning how her house is going to look. I don’t think she got real sense…….” Michael says. It’s not that Diane’s friends or Michael is lying about it; it means they have formed a perception based upon the experiences they had back then. The memories later make those experiences the truth and actually such different facets of truth makes a person multi-dimensional (an enigma – and who doesn’t want to be a bit of an enigma rather than our friends & families reminiscing a single, boring version of our life).
When Sarah Polley reaches a point to uncover the truth, she wonders if this is what she wanted to do. The constant introspective examination of film-maker’s intent and the ‘meta-nature’ transcends this tale from being personal to universal. When she comes to a conclusion that there is no single, fixed version of her mother, the artificiality of using the professional actors are revealed. The actors in those footage re-enact particular memory from different interviewees. The acting is bit stilted to observe the ‘truth’ of individual memory. May be, the constant self-examination of a documentary’s limitations is not related to the story of Diane Polley (to show what kind of a person she is), but such an approach makes it quite an acute examination of how we tell our stories, patching up random, unforgettable memories.Michael Polley, towards the end, also questions how the editing process would make her select certain views to construct one version of the tale or Diane's portrait. Sarah Polley plays with this idea in the small scene during end credits. With all the numerous footnotes provided by half-siblings, father, and old friends, we seem to know the kind of person Diane is and why she did certain things in life, but Polley drops in that little, darkly comical information, teasing us and asking: “Oh! You think you figured out everything about Diane, huh?” May be, Diane is ultimately unknowable, in the same way we and our loved ones remain to each other. And, this resulting question of ‘why’ that drives us to find the ‘unknowable element’ of a person is what makes all of us story-tellers and story-listeners. Eventually, Stories We Tell is could be about our inherent thirst to tell or shape our own personal stories.
The multi-talented artist Sarah Polley, through the kaleidoscopic tale of her family suggests that truth and memories may get lost in time, but what matters in life is to love & being loved.