Even the loneliest man who ever lived had a mother and a father. No matter how superfluous he may have been in later life, he was born somewhere and meant something to someone. That’s the great truth of humanity. We all come from the same space; we all come from the same reproductive process. We all exit the birth canal. What happens after that is built, not on the great cosmic luck of the draw, but on the lives led by those who surround us. The circumstances that bring us to the moment of our expulsion into the world can remain a mystery held in the stories told by those who come before.
As Sarah Polley’s deeply intimate documentary Stories We Tell gets underway, she sits her father Michael down in front of a microphone to narrate his memoirs. Michael Polley is an actor, known on Canadian television for his role on the series “Slings and Arrows” on which Sarah has had cameo role. Michael Polley, through a craggy English accent, speaks eloquently about the mystery of who he was in the decades before his own birth. “It is clear to me that I was always there,” he says, “somewhere in my ancestor’s DNA just waiting to be born. So, this unique ‘I’ has always existed, even in the mystery of nothingness.” The mystery of what happened in Sarah’s own “nothingness” is the center of “Stories We Tell,” in which she films her family members telling the story of how her mother and father formed a relationship that eventually led to the moment that Sarah would enter their lives. Polley is an actress and a director. You may have seen her in films like “Go” and “The Sweet Hereafter.” Recently she’s turned to directing films like “Away from Her” and “Take this Waltz.” This is her third feature, and just the nature of it says a great deal about her as a director and as a person.
In “Stories We Tell” Polley asks her family (in separate interviews) to tell the whole story of her parent’s relationship from the beginning. We hear from Sarah’s older sisters Joanna and Susy, and her brothers Mark and John and from people who were critical figures in her mother’s life. At first her family seems somewhat startled by this question, but as they talk, they reveal more and more. As youngsters, both Michael and Diane (Sarah’s mother) were stage actors who fell in love with one another. The relationship quickly began to cool under the imbalance of affection (he loved her more than she loved him.) We learn a great deal about Diane. She died of cancer in 1990 when Sarah was still a child, and it is Diane’s story that makes up most of the narrative. Through stories and old home movies, we meet Diane as a person who was a free-spirit, someone for whom life seemed to be a free-wheeling carnival. She was never fit for a family, a husband, children, a home, school. She wasn’t irresponsible, but we come to understand that she just wasn’t designed for our definition of a “normal” life.
Midway through the film something is revealed about Diane that won’t be revealed here. One of the great things about Stories We Tell is that as Sarah’s family tells more and more stories about Michael and Diane, more and more layers begin to peel back. We learn things about Diane that even Sarah doesn’t seem to know. Then at about the mid-point of the film, it turns into something else. Sarah discovers an entirely new section of her family that she never knew. How she reacts is simply incredible. More on that cannot be revealed without spoilers.
Traditional documentaries lead us to believe that the movie is just going to be a series of talking heads. For the most part we’re right, but Polley experiments with narrative structures that give the revelations more emotional punch then we might have expected. The interviews are very intimate and no two are ever the same. Through the stories, Diane becomes a complex individual and the movie cross-cuts to examine Sarah’s life and how it has affected her.
By the end, we feel that we’ve come to know Diane. She was a woman who felt trapped. She didn’t see her life tied down to a family, but she became trapped by them. That may sound like a tired cliché but as Polley digs further and further, she unearths truths that break the traditional narrative wide open. Stories told over and over have a way of pulling the diamonds from the rough, of covering the negatives with positives. Polley reveals her mother’s positive and negative and allows us to see her as a human being. She was a person who was complex and deep. She was joyful and yet sad. This is the story of the strange bonds of family and the overwhelming ripple effects of the secrets we keep.