Years ago, I remember my calculus professor randomly stopping class to discuss the notion of “truth”. Even though he was impeding my yearning for more factorial based homework, it was a worthwhile digression because it prompted a discussion on how perception makes truth infinite. To be more exact, our experiences help shape the stories that build our lives. Naturally, this self-involved version of the world doesn’t interfere with established facts like the existence of gravity and L Ron Hubbard being a messiah, but it’s one that inherently asserts itself when it comes to reliving memories. I think we’ve all heard a story where details seemingly shift like tectonic plates when told from various sources. Sure, the result of the story is always the same, but the storyteller undeniably has creative license over the tale. Self-formed variations of fact besiege the truth. For instance, there was a prank my friends and I pulled on one of my buddies (a raging democrat) which involved placing mass quantities of George Bush signs in his lawn during the 2004 election. The punch line of the gag still exists in concrete, but the number of signs we used usually resides somewhere between 10 and 30, depending on who’s telling it.
How can a moment, one that we apparently will never forget, be so fluid in its recounting? The schism existing between storytellers is a major driving force in writer/director Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary Stories We Tell. Being that she is an active storyteller herself, Polley presents Stories We Tell through various accounts. Mixing family interviews with home movies and a narration that folds in on itself, Polley attempts to chip away at her family’s mythology to discover the mother she knew very little about. Because Polley’s mother tragically succumbed to cancer when she was eleven, there’s a great deal of narrative navigation the writer/director must endure. Her investigation begins in a seemingly serendipitous way. Throughout much of her childhood, Polley and her family often joked about her lack of a resemblance to her father, Michael Polley. As life would have it, a family joke evolved into an unshakeable truth when one of Polley’s brothers recalls overhearing his mother, while pregnant with Sarah, lament about the identity of Sarah’s father. Stirred by the possibility of having a bonafide biological father somewhere in the world, Sarah follows every lead like a detective trapped in a noir film.
Through her probing questions, Sarah finds herself swallowed up in a maelstrom of information; trying to find a semblance of truth in the varying stories about her family, her existence, and the ghost of her mother. As you can probably deduce, Stories We Tell is an intensely intimate documentary for Polley and her family. It’s not commonplace for anyone to pry open their souls for public consumption, so it’s easy to respect the candid nature of the film. Fueling the film’s openness is the use of home movies, a device that give us a sense of place and time. Outside of acting as a window into her family’s cryptic past, the home movies offer an excellent framework for a burning procedural. Every strand of evidence acts as a tool of destruction, as Polley slowly extracts the truth she’s desperately seeking. And let me tell you, it’s buried deep under a collection of contradictions and emotional attachments. Each subject Polley interviews has their own version of the truth, some of which authentically coalesces, while other details betray one another.
Because of this, Polley’s journey is at times elliptical; leading her back to the same historical vacancy she started at. Once all the slippery pieces come together, revealing a puzzle made up of empty marriages, suffocating lies, and unfulfilled desires, Polley’s mother comes into focus. Unfortunately, as many of the film’s interview subjects admit, the complete truth Polley is looking for lies breathless with her mother. Undeterred by the results of her investigation and the secrets harbored by her family, Polley finds a way to take a damning family tale and make it a warm, effervescent, and achingly funny epitaph. Polley’s search for truth is an invasive procedure, one that turns up a great deal of sorrow, but her deft storytelling ability transforms her personal journey into a poignant tale that profoundly mirrors the strife, the secrets, and the love burrowed into any family’s DNA. With a story like this, Polley poetically reflects the boundless, refracted nature in which we recount history and the tales that make up our lives.