One of my favourite things to do as a kid was to look at my great-grandmother’s collection of photographs. Unlike most people of her generation she didn’t keep them in neatly-sorted photo albums, but instead loosely thrown into a drawer at the bottom of a dresser. I would look at them for hours, often browsing through hundreds of black and white photographs of elegantly dressed people. My great-grandmother would patiently answer my questions about the people in them and, along with my own ideas and interpretations, I tinkered together a story in my head about the lives they led.
In a way, Sarah Polley follows a similar principle in her film Stories We Tell (2012). Years after her mother’s untimely death when Sarah was only 11, Polley learns that the man she grew up with was not her biological father. Combining archive footage and interviews with close family and friends, the screenwriter, actor and director attempts to reconstruct the story of her mother’s life, and thereby her own family history.
Far from the likes of Kim Kardashian, who have made a career out of over-sharing, the Canadian filmmaker is painfully aware of how deeply personal her endeavour is. She is unsure why she chooses to expose her family in this way, claiming it is “really embarrassing”. Yet, in taking an excruciating look at her own life and heritage, she succeeds in telling something universal that affects each and every single one of us; how do we find a balance between our own lives and our family history? How do we find our own place in the face of conflicts that may affect us but that are not necessarily ours?
The conflict in Stories We Tell is between Sarah’s mother Diane and her husband Michael, and Harry, a man whom she met whilst playing theatre in Montreal. Yet the events that occurred in these months in 1978 had a profound impact on the rest of the family, and affect them to this day.
The Polleys prove to be no different to other families. Friction is most often caused by two things: the ultimate unreliability of memory, and different perspectives on one and the same occurrence. The person most likely to clarify the speculations about her love life is no longer there to do so: Diane Polley.
And so everybody is left with their own beliefs and convictions. Sarah’s biological father Harry strongly opposes his daughter’s decision to include various perspectives on a story that he believes is his to tell. To him, the only way to get close to the truth of what happened is to focus on the only remaining protagonist of the love affair – himself. “The crucial function of art is to tell the truth”, he proclaims. But what if the very concept of truth is quite woolly to begin with? Is there even such a thing as a definitive truth?
Let’s pretend for a moment we did only hear Harry’s perspective on things. We would think that Diane was happy about her pregnancy in spite of her marriage to Michael. It is only through the objection of several of Diane’s friends that we learn that she was actually on her way to terminating the pregnancy before she changed her mind. So the truth proves to be a little more complex and ambiguous than one person’s perspective can ever be.
Polley seems more interested in the way the story is told than the story itself. Consequently, she lets the viewer in on her experience of trying to reconstruct her family’s story with all its discrepancies, contradictions and challenges. Seemingly lacking in a preconceived structure, the filmmaker is careful to emphasise the experimental aspect of her film – she does not seem to know the outcome herself at this stage, or in fact even what exactly she is looking for. Neither her nor her siblings seem to really know why Sarah has decided to make this documentary: “Who fucking cares about our stupid family?” her sister Joanna asks.
Mixing interviews with super-8 archive footage, she avoids a traditional docudrama style. Just like me when I was five years old and looking through my great-grandmother’s photographs, she works her way through the available footage to try and make sense of the woman that was her mother. It is only in the last third of the film that Polley reveals that the seeming transparency she has established between her project and her audience has been a deceit all along.
In a documentary that has conditioned us to question the authenticity of the spoken word, Polley exposes our willingness to believe in what we see. For 45 minutes we have been admiring the wealth of family footage, until the camera suddenly moves back and we see the filmmaker stand next to her mother in what we thought was 1978. Astonishingly, while the idea of her recreating the home videos makes perfect sense, it has not occurred to us.
The refusal to give answers when there are none is perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of Stories We Tell. The inability to give definitive answers is also one of the saddest aspects of the film; for after each of us passes away we will also become a series of disparate memories spread amongst our loved ones. And ultimately any “truth” from our lives will also disappear.