There is a story embedded in this review. Maybe, in fact, this isn’t a film review at all, just a story, several stories, like little assignations – drawing a reference there to a Joyce Carol Oates collection of short stories that triggered in me a desire, for the first time in my adult life right after college, to pick up the proverbial pen and write. The Assignation assembled pieces that were brief, sometime no more than a paragraph long, but even the shortest of the shorts told so much, too much about their subjects.
And that is what Sarah Polley, the Canadian actress and now writer-director, whose documentary Stories We Tell is ostensibly the focus or subject here, has done; she has spun the most amazing and haunting of stories about (and with the assistance of) her family and a secret that had remained unspoken for so long among them. It seems Polley’s mother Diane, an actress and later a casting director in Toronto, married Michael Polley, an actor and writer, had three children – Sarah being the third – but this bright and passionate woman found herself seeking a love that matched her own. Failing to do so within her marriage, she stumbled headlong into an affair, while working on a play in Montreal, which produced Sarah.
Diane and Michael resumed marriage life after the end of the show and raised Sarah together until Diane’s early death in the late 1980s. Sarah was approximately 11 years old and left to grow up in the loving comfort of Michael Polley, but thanks to a series of family jokes about her parentage, Sarah, began a quest to discover the truth about her father. Stories We Tell, built on the framework of frank interviews with her siblings and Michael, along with extended family, friends, and fellow artists from those early days, captures her telling of this story of the surprising revelation and its impact on everyone involved.
What is the story, her story, but a collection of memories, fragmented perspectives on the truth? It is a thing of intriguing beauty to watch unfold, raw and honest, but always, in every moment, calling into question, the notion, the very idea of truth. What is the truth?
No one lies; they tell what they can, from their point of view, but the truth, as we find out, is not something that one person can know, not without being privy to all other points of view. And when we tell our own stories, we are never as truthful as we might hope or desire.
But what Sarah has done is wrestle with the impossible. Her aim was to corral as many angles as possible, to tell the truth – the whole truth and nothing but. Although for all her effort, Stories We Tell falls short, in two ways.
We discover, along with Sarah, who her biological father is beyond a shadow of a doubt (thanks to DNA testing), and she works in not only his perspective but also that of his daughter from another relationship – another half-sister for Sarah who already has half siblings (a brother and sister) from Diane’s marriage prior to her union with Michael as well as another half-brother & sister set from Michael. It is all rather confusing to document here, but the film grants each one of them their own time to speak and breath as more than mere characters before us.
But we never hear from Diane. She is the hole at the center of things, the voiceless presence that looms large, so large that the film nearly tricks us into believing that we have heard from her. We want to and our desire is so strong that we, along with Sarah maybe, convince ourselves that we have her from her. There are so many images – photos and video – of Diane that dance before us and tease us with thousands of unspoken words.
And in the same way, it could be argued that we never get Sarah’s real story either. Her meticulous focus on gathering so much from so many allows her to disappear. I don’t believe that was her intention, but still, it is the result.
How do we tell our own stories?
I have returned, again and again, to a quote from Roger Ebert’s memoir Life, Itself, which I picked up about six months ago and read before his death. Speaking of advice he received once he took on the assignment of covering film, by way of Esquire critic Dwight McDonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”
What happened to me, while watching Stories We Tell?
I found it difficult to separate from the story, which for me, was a focus on fathers and fatherhood. Like Sarah Polley, I grew up without knowing my biological father. That’s not quite true. Unlike Sarah, I knew who he was, but he wasn’t involved in my life and there were periods when I considered seeking him out. There have always been people close to me who knew where he was and would have assisted me in the search, but I always found reasons to back away from the quest.
At one point, I hatched a plan. I started a novel about the experience of finding him. My fictional telling was rooted in the idea of creating him from the snippets of anecdotes and traits I had been told over the years. Once the book was completed, I would track him down and compare notes, see how close I had come to realizing him on the page. I got about 13 chapters and pages and pages of notes into the project, but set it aside. That was almost 20 years ago and for the life of me, I’m not sure what put me off that time.
Two years ago, I finally accomplished the mission, driving down to North Carolina for a meeting, which lasted all of 30 minutes. He told his story, as best he could, in a breathless rush that led me to believe that he realized this would be our only meeting face-to-face. I sat and listened. I stared into his face. And now, as I sit here relaying the story, there’s not much to tell. I don’t remember much of what he looked like. I can’t say that I found myself in any of his features. I do remember him saying that God brought me to him. He said it several times, but the truth, my truth at least, is that God had nothing to do with it. I came, I saw, and I returned to the only story that mattered.