“When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion” begins the opening monologue of Canadian film maker Sarah Polley’s moving, funny and ultimately thought provoking documentary ‘Stories We Tell’. Polley interviews members of her family and her mother (Diane’s) close friends in an effort to discover more about her mother’s own complex life, while the story ultimately hinges around the question of the director’s biological father. The story is full of interesting characters, and sufficient plot developments to satisfy the viewer; however the narrative acts as a jumping point for the true excellence of this film.
In the opening shots, we see the respective interviewees setting up in front of camera, and my heart sank as Bon Iver – Skinny Love began to play over the top. As everyone knows, when an audience hears Skinny Love, this is when you are supposed to feel sad, like some kind of emotional klaxon. I feared that the film was going to fall in to the trap of using obvious musical sign-posting to instruct me when to feel; intrigued, uplifted, nostalgic etc. However, my fears were soon allayed as Polley used intelligent camera work and editing to bring an added poignancy to the piece. The camera moves around each of the nervous and intrepid subjects in their modern homes, before pausing on black and white footage of Diane Polley, stressing the importance of the absentee protagonist – a theme which underlies the film.
‘Stories We Tell’ forces the audience to re-evaluate many aspects of narrative and story-telling. Polley touches on the linear nature of time; her childhood father talks about how he has always existed somewhere in his ancestry. Camerawork is also utilised to this effect, as the modern day is inter-woven with home video footage of thirty years previous. Occasionally, the modern day images are shot with a grainy effect, perhaps to remind us that this too will become somebody’s story to tell thirty years from now and shall also become caught up in the turbulence of anecdotal history.
The film culminates in an examination of how we construct the past through our memories, and so can sometimes differ from the events that transpired. Harry Gulkin declares that the “critical function of art is to tell the truth”, and that not everybody’s memories should be held equal when telling the story of Diane. While this may be the case, it raises the spectre of there being multiple truths for the art to uncover. There may be the ‘objective’ truth of the events which unfolded, however if somebody’s memory of the events strays slightly from this objective unfolding it should not be discounted. If this skewed memory of encounters has informed their experience of Diane, and affected their decisions and life then surely it holds just as much importance and ‘truth’ as the objective, and so deserves to be recounted?
These are all questions which can and should be discussed at length, and are raised in a film which whose individual narrative and appealing characters keep you gripped, and leave even the most unsentimental viewer with a lump in the throat.
By Mark Nathan