As children, we often mythologize the family histories and events that led up to our birth. Because, to our minds, we are the end result, those stories belong to us — our parents are just the players. When we grow into their adult children, able to see at their level, the tale becomes far more complicated.
Sarah Polley’s story is more complex than most. In her gripping new documentary Stories We Tell, she stands back and let’s the players speak for themselves, under her own admittedly subjective gaze. What unfolds is one family’s secret, so large one can hardly fathom how it stayed hidden for so long. It is a testament to the power of love, shame, and our willingness to cling to those myths of childhood.
Many of us know Sarah as a child actress (she played Ramona Quimby in the original adaptation, and starred on Disney’s Avonlea), or the auteur behind such critically lauded films as Away From Her and Take This Waltz. She comes from an acting family, the daughter of Michael and the late Diane Polley. Turning the camera on her dad, siblings, and family friends, Sarah begins Stories with Michael in a recording booth, beginning with how he and Diane met.
From there, the twists begin. If you’d prefer to not to know them in advance, stop here. Otherwise, click through…
Through Michael’s narration, Sarah’s interviews, and interwoven email transcripts, we discover slowly, the secret Sarah uncovered just a few years ago: Michael Polley is not her biological father.
Throughout her childhood, there had always been family jokes about her parentage — she looked so different from the rest, and wouldn’t it be just like their flirty, vivacious mother to have had a secret affair? But since Diane had died when Sarah was barely eleven years old, the joking never progressed to questions. Then she grew up and started asking.
Throughout Stories We Tell, Polley reveals the myriad answers she got, filling in gaps with home movie footage and original photography. We stumble across her birth father, as she did. We hear his own fascinating story, as he must have told it to her. We laugh and squirm and ache for her tender father and siblings, each bereft and shell-shocked by this discovery in their own way.
Polley’s lens is gentle, but probing. She lets the subjects get comfortable, but she doesn’t let them off the hook. This is her record, and she wants answers. Yet for all the perspectives given, we know this isn’t the definitive truth — and that there isn’t one to be had. The closest we might come is Diane’s own version, but since she isn’t here to tell it, we have to rely on those she left behind to puzzle the pieces together. That seems to be Polley’s point, and the struggle with this film.
True, this documentary is a little long and a little indulgent — aren’t we all guilty of this when it comes to telling family tales? One gets the sense that Polley made this film in large part for her dad. For years she never intended to tell him, until journalists got wind of the rumor, forcing her to reveal the truth.
But, the stronger sense is that this film is Polley taking ownership of her story and, as she said in her only statement upon the film’s premiere, “I also didn’t want this story to be out there in the words of someone other than the many people who lived it.” It’s a film about why, and how we tell stories. If the film answers few questions, it at least answers those: We tell stories to remember one another, and we only, ever tell our own.