(I feel a little embarrassed getting around to this film a full year after it debuted at TIFF and has already had it's Canadian release, but better late than never. Here's to Can-con that's actually good!)
'The purpose of art is to get at absolute truth.' This paraphrased belief is conveyed by Harry Gulkin, one of a dozen or so storytellers we meet in Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, and it is at once a wise but misguided philosophy. Yes, art strives to present the truths about our world and the human beings that inhabit it, but is there such a thing as a truth that is “absolute”? In this extraordinary documentary, Sarah's own personal history is probed through intimate interviews with her family and other witnesses. The “truth” is revealed to be far from absolute. It is ethereal, fluid, and subject to the biases of those recalling it; Such is the very nature of storytelling.
Polley starts her story before she was even born, with recollections of her late mother, Diane, from the people who knew her best. By all accounts she was a beloved and infectious spirit. An actress at heart, she put her stage career on the back burner in order to raise her children with her husband Michael, who narrates much of the film from a voluminous personal letter he wrote to Sarah. As the multiple perspectives on Diane and Michael trickle in from Sarah's father, siblings, and family friends, an amorphous whole starts to take shape about Diane and the secrets she kept.
Polley recreates this blurry past with blurry visuals, interspersing 8mm home movies of her mother throughout the interviewee's stories. Of course, as it is with any story we hear, these homemade videos aren't always as they seem.
Like the complex mysteries of Polley's own family past, Stories We Tell is itself a complex mystery about many things at once, not content to simply wade into one thematic pool. On one level it's about the beautifully messy and illogical connections that define one's family, unrestricted by bloodlines or biological parentage. On another level it's about the profound consequence of seemingly insignificant history. “Who the f*** cares about our family?” laughs one of Sarah's sisters, before sheepishly asking the camera, “can I swear?”. Yes, one family's past makes an odd documentary subject, but when the outcome is an entire human life, it becomes clear that no history is ever insignificant. And on yet another level it's about the aforementioned search for truth, which becomes less and less obvious the more you discover about it.
Ultimately, as the title suggests, this is a story about storytelling; about how our memories shape our perceptions and vice versa. None of the storytellers in Polley's documentary are above question, but that's not to say that any of them are being untruthful. The truth for one person may overlap but still be distinctly different than the truth for another.
The same applies to Sarah, who is quick to turn the camera on herself and remind us all that even her version of the story – the documentary itself – is influenced by the prism through which she perceives it. We are seeing the stories unfold through her lens (literally), and she frequently reminds us of that. This meta approach, whereby the making of the film is as crucial a part of the story as the actual stories it's documenting, is the most brilliant innovation of Stories We Tell.
Storytelling is art, whether the truths it exposes are absolute or not. And this ingenuous piece is as artfully told as they come.
**** out of ****