There’s a point in this fascinating documentary film directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley where the voiceover by her father Michael tells of how she didn’t want a significant piece of her life story revealed by a journalist, had not in fact intended to ever reveal this secret. Yet in crafting this film around that very personal story (of which I don’t intend to provide too many details here), she’s managed to deftly hide herself in the overlapping strands of narrative. Veteran Canadian film producer Harry Gulkin avers in an interview that film should always seek to reveal truth, thereby objecting to his place in Polley’s story, for it is perhaps the impossibility of finding truth that’s at the heart of the film, along with Polley’s mother Diane who died from cancer when Sarah was a child.
For if Sarah is an enigmatic figure behind (and sometimes in front of) the camera, Diane is ever more evanescent, glimpsed only in super 8 home video footage which is interspersed through the film. It is the stories told about her by the men who loved her, her friends and her children that make up the bulk of the documentary. They don’t always agree, sometimes even have quite different recollections of her, and by the end the truth of what we’ve seen and heard seems even more precarious thanks to director Sarah’s sleight of hand.
It’s no surprise that Polley should be so cunningly adept with narrative, being not only from a family of actors, but having come to attention herself in films as multi-layered as Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), both corruscating dramas dealing with complicated family histories. But Polley’s parents aren’t abusive and manipulative like those in Egoyan’s films, and despite the seemingly telling detail that Gulkin’s most famous film is entitled Lies My Father Told Me, no one here is exactly lying either.
What we’re left with then is an enigma, a mystery of how to find the truth or represent a person when that is so much predicated on people’s memories and the place the past has in each person’s story of their lives. Although on the surface it feels like Stories We Tell could be a self-indulgent vanity project by a well-known public figure, the final film is far from simply a story about Sarah Polley’s family. I feel unequal to doing the film justice in a review, suffice to say it has many fascinating layers, with plenty to say about history, memory and representation — and does so with humour and wonder both.
Director/Writer Sarah Polley; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Starring Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Sarah Polley; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 3 July 2013.