“I’m interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.” Stories We Tell is a documentary directed by Sarah Polley, who, in her attempt to tell the story of her mother’s life, takes the audience on an adventure into the abyss of family secrets. At times heartbreaking and tearful, laugh-out-loud hilarious at others, Polley tries to piece together fragments of long-forgotten memories to resurrect the dynamic relationship of her parents, Michael and Diane.
Diane Polley is quickly established as the central character who, despite having died of cancer over two decades ago, acts as the stubborn knot in Sarah Polley’s life that refuses to be untied – the centerpiece that holds all the people that matter to Polley together to form a tangled mosaic of family, friends, and everything in between.
Polley, who only possesses her own precious childhood memories to piece the story together, skillfully incorporates shots of her mother’s antics from home movies with Super 8 recreations of family milestones, thanks to the poignant portrayal of Diane by the beautiful Rebecca Jenkins, in an attempt to resurrect Diane from the past. Suffice to say, she succeeds, with Diane’s exuberance radiating from the screen to drive the story further into the unknown. Polley also uses interviews conducted with her brothers, sisters, and her mother’s friends and colleagues, combined with the extra element of Michael reading excerpts from his memoir to play the part of an omnipresent narrator, to allow the events to seamlessly unfold in a natural way.
Although all these characters detail their own stories and interactions of Diane, Polley attempts to combine all accounts, some of which contradict each other, to tell a definitive account of her mother’s life. However, in the midst of doing so, Polley reveals that she is the product of an extra-marital affair. What initially began as a eulogy to Diane soon evolves into something much deeper and personal for Polley; it becomes a somewhat frantic effort to discover the identity of her biological father in order to discover the story of her own self. It becomes apparent to the viewer that Polley is trying to piece together the vast puzzle of her life in order to solve her own existential dilemma. The identity of her biological father seems irrelevant, as what is truly at stake is Polley’s definition of herself and her internal struggle as to whether she will allow these newly discovered stories to tarnish the memory of her mother.
In an interview with Studio Q, Polley revealed her motivation as wanting to make “a film about the mess of storytelling”; her creative genius allows her wish to come to fruition by showing us how the subjective nature of storytelling can cloud the truth. Yet, perhaps she hesitated in going even further down the rabbit hole for fear of tarnishing the image of her mother that she holds so dear. Despite her efforts to understand her mother, Diane still remains an elusive figure who can never truly be understood. Regardless of Polley’s intentions, Stories We Tell is a masterpiece and a testament to our capacity as human beings to tell stories that define our existence.