Raw, personal and emotionally taxing, Stories We Tell is a documentary that stirs a lingering sentimentality. Director Sarah Polley uses humour and intermittent light touches to ease the blows dealt by the deeply moving accounts of the love story at the head of her fame-touched family.
When actor and casting director Diane MacMillan met Michael Polley, British-born actor and insurance broker, she fell in love with him (so the story goes). They got married, made a family and pursued their respective careers. This film is about the path of twists, turns and very human blunders they navigated along the way.
Ms Polley attempts to piece together her family’s web of sub-plots – or, it may be more accurate to say mash them together and thus destroy the idea of one ‘correct’ and coherent story which everyone can agree on.
Through the almost ritualistic telling of stories, we better understand ourselves; by hearing another person’s story we open ourselves to the possibility of their pain but also the potential lessons borne of their experience. In Stories We Tell, candid interview excerpts complemented by old footage promise a gradual stitching together of a patchwork family history.
But, as the film goes on, the realisation dawns that the quilt will not be satisfyingly finished; in fact it seems it could continue to be added to ad infinitum.
We see there’s not enough time in one lifetime, let alone one documentary, to get ‘the full story’.
The full spectrum of pain and joy unavoidable in the human condition is made accessible due to the honesty of the Polley family. The picture drawn lacks consistency and coherency, which makes it devastatingly authentic. The viewer experiences a gnawing fear of the empty space where a neat ‘moral of the story’ should have been. I have experienced this with various creative works before, but Stories We Tell achieves it with ruthless efficiency.
It was clear from looking around the theatre that the film left others feeling raw too.
During the interviews we hear a mix of loving, puzzling and critical accounts of Diane Polley. Her enigmatic personality; her cancer and custody battles; her extramarital dalliances; her complex and at times deeply painful marriage to Michael.
Nostalgic footage of Diane having fun with her family serve to build an intense emotional investment which her fate betrays.
Stories We Tell could leave you thinking about your own family, and the people who feature largely in your stories. Its name, ‘Stories We Tell’, indicates the inclusive way it draws the viewer into the pain as well as the hope found in solidarity.
It is a potentially confusing film, finishing with a main player in the family’s drama summing up that only he really knows the truth and therefore only he can rightfully speak of it. This is a notion many of us might recognise in ourselves.
It is portrayed to be somewhat absurd, contrasted as it is with other accounts. But the particular role of this person in the story could give some credence to their conviction.
This and other dynamics make a mockery of black-and-white understandings and the line between fact and fiction. In post-modern fashion, distinctions are shown to be always a bit blurry, grey areas grow the more deeply one looks, and feelings are always subjective.
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell proves the vast and uncontrollable potential for personal and family history to be re-told and re-interpreted.
This can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when as a society we so often rely on films and forms of mass storytelling to calm our deepest fears about the chaos of life, and offer the antidote of certainty and reassurance.