I used to watch the Avonlea series every week. It was my childhood version of Downton Abbey, and I never missed it. That was my first introduction to Canadian actress and now filmmaker Sarah Polley (Splice, Dawn of the Dead). I had no idea then just what a fascinating family she had.
Stories We Tell, to quote Polley, is a film about memory. It has won 22 awards and screened at a slew of film festivals including Sundance and the Venice Film Festival. It’s a vulnerable documentary about her vivacious late mother Diane Polley (Street Legal) and the rumors following her death that questioned Sarah’s true parentage.
The film is an investigation of her family’s stories. Each character is given the chance to tell their story as they remember it. The beautifully candid interviews often contradict each other and express how memory is a fleeting understanding of one’s history. Polley’s own involvement in the storytelling is admirably minimal as she refrains from leading her family and family friends from saying anything beyond their truth.
What amazes me about Stories We Tell is how raw and genuine it is. Documentaries often have an agenda. Frequently they have one message they wish to tell while attempting subjectivity by offering bits of the opposing viewpoint. Polley has no agenda. She remains sympathetic to all players involved. Everyone is simply telling their part of the story as they see it, with some allowable, loving speculation about how her mother must have felt since she is the only person unavailable to express her perspective.
In her interview with Collider, Ms. Polley explains:
“Whether everything in the film is fact, I don’t know. Nothing in the film is intentionally taken out of context, and I think that everybody that’s interviewed in the film is truthful about their memories of events. Whether their truthful memories of events are actually fact, I have no idea, and I don’t think anybody can know that about their own life.”
Polley’s vulnerability is an inspiration to me, and no doubt to those family members she interviewed. Each of them answered her questions gently and frankly, with both laughter and tears. They could have easily lied, but it’s clear that Polley’s own precedent of honesty and objectivity set the tone for the interviews and thus the documentary.
Stories We Tell is fraught with pain and one imagines there could easily have been a lack of closure, since the discussion of Sarah’s true father came after Diane’s death. Instead, the film is one of unconditional love and grace. If the film does have an agenda, it is simply to express that we all make mistakes and in life, we are forced to make choices. Diane did her best in an age when women did not have many choices. The decisions she made – both good, bad and lasting – are the foundation for this moving documentary.
I personally love to hear stories about my family, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to give grace to the members that have been responsible for the more painful stories. Because it’s true that we all have our perspective. And we all have secrets. We all have the opportunity to give grace when the truth hurts, and extend forgiveness and love even when we don’t understand. That’s the real beauty of Stories We Tell. It’s the tangible, heartening takeaway.