Features

Canada’s Documentary Essentials: ‘Stories We Tell’

Dir. Sarah Polley, 2012

Courtesy of the NFB


Memory and truth, it turns out, don’t always match up. That is what Sarah Polley discovered in the five years it took her to make Stories We Tell, a deep dive into her family’s past. But it’s more than a family history; it’s also a meditation on storytelling itself.

As Stories We Tell unravels, its form defies convention through a sophisticated self-awareness. In the opening sequence, the camera offers a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of the film. Polley’s father, Michael, is about to record the narration for the film when he looks to his daughter, behind the mixing board, and quips: “It’s not the normal way of doing it, is it?” Not at all.

And so, script in hand, Michael tells the story of the Polley family. In the beginning, Michael meets Diane, another young theatre actor. They fall in love, get married and raise a family. Over the years, the relationship becomes strained. Diane is a socialite, who feels hemmed in by her introverted husband. When Sarah was 11 years old, Diane died of cancer.

In the film, Polley breaks up her father’s narration with interviews conducted with other members of her family. That includes Diane’s children, Mark, Joanna, Susy and John, as well as her closest friends. They recall their memories directly to the camera, intercut with family photos and grainy footage of what looks like Diane.

Some memories agree. But many conflict, revealing a rumour-laden family folklore. We hear of an affair, perhaps, when Diane briefly lived in Montreal in the 1970s. The whispers grow louder when Polley’s siblings tease her about how little she resembles Michael.

Polley’s curiosity leads her to Harry Gulkin, her mother’s old friend. Then the movie drops its bombshell: he confesses that he is her biological father (and goes on to prove this later with a DNA test). The revelation shatters the Polley family. Who was Diane? What else was a lie?

But that’s not what Polley is most interested in. After all, Diane isn’t around to explain herself. The film, then, becomes a debate about who has the right to tell Diane’s story. Harry believes that, since he was directly involved, only he has that right. Polley disagrees. To her, it’s important to hear from the entire family and to give each perspective equal weight. Michael Polley, with sensitive understanding of his daughter’s existential confusion, reminds Polley that no matter who tells the story, it will be their flawed version of the truth.

In a flash, Stories We Tell goes from a private tale to a story about making documentaries. We even discover that the film’s grainy archival footage is nothing of the sort. In fact, Polley and her cinematographer Iris Ng (The Apology, The Ghosts in Our Machine) staged fake home movies in the present day and shot them expertly on Super 8. That blonde women we thought was Diane Polley? She’s actress Rebecca Jenkins in period clothing, recreating scenes from family photos and Polley’s imagination. We, the viewer, no longer know who to trust. But that’s the point of the film: the truth is never quite what it seems. 

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Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley, provided by the National Film Board of Canada