The further into the past things recede, the knottier their truth becomes. Time passes and the matters in question solidify into stories repeated to others, the truth further refracted by the varied perceptions of both the witnesses and the hearers of the tales. And, too, there exists some distance between the truth of an event and the individual experience of that event. Truth is slippery and multifaceted – and a devil of a thing to pin down in a documentary.
Acknowledging all this, Sarah Polley plunges ahead with Stories We Tell – a very personal yet inventive inquiry into the true identity of her biological father, as well as the many aspects of truth. Using interviews (or interrogations, as some subjects call them), old home movies, newly shot footage made to look like scratchy, old Super-8 film, and material that records her father reading from a memoir he wrote, Polley constructs one of the most lyrical documentaries to come along in a while. The story she tells is ultimately her assemblage of the truth, but one that looks beyond herself to understand the multiplicity of perceptions that shape her understanding.
A renowned Canadian actress on television and film, Polley has also distinguished herself in recent years as the writer and director of the finely wrought fiction films, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, that revealed a wisdom that seemed beyond her young years. Expect no less from her documentary debut. Polley is the daughter of two actors, Michael and Diane Polley, who met in the theatre. Different in disposition (Michael suspects Diane fell in love with the character he was playing at the time they met instead of the actual person he was), theirs was a loving but unbalanced marriage. Diane died of cancer when her youngest child, Sarah, was 11 years old. Aside from the trauma of losing one’s mother at such a young age, Sarah grew up perplexed but largely unconcerned about the ribbing she received from her siblings, who teased that she was not Michael’s biological daughter. Lots of circumstantial evidence points in that direction, and Sarah ultimately embarks on a journey to discover the truth, while recording it on film. Needless to say, the experience takes her in unexpected directions. The film also becomes a lovely portrait of Diane, a woman who left mysteries in her wake.
As lovely as this film is, Stories We Tell loses its footing a little bit in its last third once the central mystery is solved and the focus turns too centrally toward the filmmaker and the choices she must make about revealing the truth and shaping it into a film. Yet the film never grows self-indulgent. As with her other films, when Sarah Polley takes it upon herself to tell us a story, you can bet it’s a tale well-told and one that you’ll want to hear.