This documentary is terribly personal. The story is that Diane Polley, the director’s mother, died in 1990. She was an actress and a very lively person, bubbly and easily getting in trouble. What Diane Polley left behind is different memories and a big dinosaur in the family closet. Since she is now gone and no longer can explain the choices she made, her daughter, Sarah Polley, sets out to talk to everyone who was close to her mother, and make sense of the dinosaurs.
From the beginning, Michael Polley (Sarah’s father) is reading something in a recording studio, an artifice that creates a ‘narrator’ to push the story further or to fall on when necessary. What Michael Polley is reading is a comprehensive family story he wrote when the dinosaur got out. The dinosaur is a big secret that involves everyone to a certain degree, but mainly Sarah and Michael.
The film is made of family archive footage with a distinct retro feel, mixed with interviews of family members. Another artifice is that certain parts of the interviews look retro as well. That blurs somehow the line between past and present and brings Diane Polley closer to now. It also enhances the feeling of watching something private.
‘I’m interested in the way we tell stories about our lives’ says Sarah, ‘about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.’ Well, it is ephemeral and difficult to pin down because there is no one truth but many different truths. Many different truths about Diane Polley and one filmmaker daughter trying to find her own truth.
Stories We Tell is not about the way we tell stories, but about this particular story of Sarah and her family. There is no need to try to cover this personal search – which obviously means more to her and her family than to any outsider – in a sort of philosophical aura, looking for some universal insight to be extracted. I think there is no deep insight the story brings forward, nothing except the obvious.
The obvious is that the stories we tell about our family, dead or alive, are filled with our own perceptions, with the way we felt and connected and eventually judged. Now the accounts of Sarah family are essentially not that different. In fact they sort of complete each other. The only difference comes from the different roles they played in the family story. And we cannot tell whether their memories are obscured or distorted because we have no reference point to judge.
Stories We Tell invites a moment of reflection on family in general, on judging and on understanding. But not much more. At the end you’re left feeling you’ve expected something, not sure what, but anyway it failed to arrive.