For Jean Luc-Godard, cinema is the truth. For Michael Haneke, it is a lie in service of the truth. For Sarah Polley, the overall purpose of cinema, if there is one, is far less concrete. Her new documentary, Stories We Tell, is a deeply emotional and inquisitive journey into her personal past and the purpose of cinema in her life, but it offers no definitive answers. Cinema is a tool, but what that tool is truly used for remains a question.
As the first documentary offering from Polley, who has spent time as both an actress (Splice, Dawn of the Dead, Mr. Nobody) and director (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), Stories We Tell is an almost uncomfortably open and intimate portrait of her family; more specifically, of a family secret that has become a story that each sibling, parent or close acquaintance has a slightly different recollection of. The story in question concerns the fact that Polley was the offspring of an affair between her now deceased mother and another man, a fact that was often rumored and joked about during her upbringing but eventually turned out to be true.
There is a small parallel here between the story of Polley’s conception and the themes at play in her last directorial effort, Take This Waltz. In a way, this film makes that one seem like almost a trial run at understanding some of the emotions and questions that go into a situation like that. But Stories We Tell isn’t concerned with fiction; it aims to find the truth. As the film progresses, however, Polly shows us how hard, if not impossible, that truth is to find.
The revelation about her biological father is hardly treated as a mystery in the film. Very early on we know that this is the case, and the confirmation of who it may or may not be is interesting, but not essential to the film’s function. More than just being a film about this discovery, Stories We Tell is constructed to give Polley a chance to examine how each of the people involved with the story remembers it differently, and to explore how storytelling affects our memory and understanding of the past.
This is especially important in the way that film’s participants, especially the other members of Polley’s family, remember her mother Diane, who becomes the film’s central character despite her being dead most of Polley’s life. By reconstructing her mother through their memories and stories, along with what seems to be archival footage and home movies, Polley tries to understand and connect with a woman who she never knew, but whose choices led to her own existence.
The greatness of the film comes from the uncertainty of how successful Polley’s experiment is. Is cinema as an art form ever capable of truly piecing together a story such as this one? After all of her interviews, recreations, and recollections, is Polley any closer to really understanding her mother and the meaning of her affair? More than that, are any of the film’s storytellers, each armed with only a personal snapshot of the events, really qualified to tell the tale? Rarely does a film poke so boldly at its own purpose; by its ending, Stories We Tell has become a metacognitive expedition into the justification of its own existence and effectiveness.
Stories We Tell is a film that will be shown in film studies courses for years to come. It asks us to try to understand the very essence of cinema, the reason that we create lies and fictions and stories in order to understand a truth, no matter how impossible that exercise may be in the end. Polley has made a truly one of a kind film, a work that will become essential viewing for all those with a true interest in film and its function in our world. Forget what you know; this is a film that will change you.
Stories We Tell is out in the UK on June 28th
This article was first posted on May 23, 2013