“Love is so short, forgetting is so long,” laments Pablo Neruda, a line recited in a particularly poignant moment of Stories We Tell.
Director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz, Away from Her) knows this as well as anyone. Stories We Tell is the Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker’s first direct venture into autobiographical territory — a treacherous landscape for any storyteller, but one especially potent for Polley.
Polley’s theatrical family has kept a rumor for years that Sarah’s dad may not be her biological father. Nagged by persistent jokes about her striking non-resemblance to the rest of the family, and unable to ask her long-since deceased mother, Polley sets out to put the record, and her family’s memories, straight.
There’s much to love here, and what immediately distinguishes Stories is the openness — both uncomfortable and endearing — with which Polley invites the audience to see the intimate process of art-making.
As the director sits each sibling down in front of her camera, we see them alternately reluctant (“My lawyer said I didn’t have to answer any questions”), bemused (“What’s so interesting about us?”), and self-conscious (“Is this a good angle for me?”... “I think I need pills.”)
We see her invite her actor father to narrate portions of his story, even the most painful betrayal of his wife's secret affair — then correct him on his voice. We see family members dubious about how Polley will edit the final product, at times playfully turning the eye back on her. One brother asks mid-interview, “This where you’ll cut to each of us guessing [your real dad’s] name, right?” to laughter — he’s guessed right.
In short, we see a family — recognizably ordinary, and still very much in the process of living — grappling with what it means to suddenly be subjects in an intimate story no longer their own.
Polley doesn’t excuse herself from this exercise. Though fairly transparent throughout, she lines up a series of reveals late in the film that cast doubt on her own narrative integrity.
As viewers, it is unsettling to realize we can’t trust our guide on her own story. It takes a particularly courageous kind of storyteller to admit that we’re right.
Polley’s collection of throw-aways, contradictory statements, and family in-jokes add up to a dappled story that is both deeply personal, and universal in its relational politics. For all her family’s endearing qualities, we sense the many years of avoidance, misunderstanding, healing, and/or reconciliation that their mother’s death and the subsequent discovery of Polley’s parentage has brought upon each of their lives.
And if the narrative arc reads like scandalous expose, Polley forsakes its linear plot for nuance, allowing each character's conflicting memories to sit equally at the table.
It is this generosity of spirit that is so striking about Stories We Tell.
Each of us has similarly incomplete stories rattling around our souls — the family rumors, the lost loves, the untimely deaths, the miraculous successes, the boisterous joy of living, the quiet desperation of feeling such a life slip away. Polley’s film is a gentle reminder that these stories of ours do not have to be finished, or even particularly remarkable, to be told.
Brian Formo at the Huffington Post writes:
“If you are interested in the craft of storytelling and/or documentaries I highly suggest that you see Stories We Tell. If you prefer dinner parties to dance clubs … if you like dissections of the modern family make-up/shake-up … if you've ever told a story a hundred times [but] still find ways to inject new life into it, I highly suggest that you see Stories We Tell.”
I would add to that:
If you have ever shrunk from letting others tell their version of your story, I suggest you see this film. If you have felt the joy of seeing a truth you resigned to carry alone reflected in another's eyes; if you have thought a story privately, preciously yours only to realize it is common rumor among neighbors and friends; if you’ve ever fought for hope amidst the daily fractures and betrayals of life, I suggest you see this film.
In short, Stories We Tell is about how we set about telling our stories, as much as why. The film invites each of us to be generous: with our craft, with our story, and with our love.
Polley can’t know the conversations viewers will have as we leave her story and return to our own, but she suspects that we will have them. The great gift of Stories We Tell is its insistent affirmation that these conversations — and the awkward, messy, grace-filled stories we may yet tell from them — are, above all, the ones worth having.
“Forgetting is so long," Neruda writes, while in the same poetic breath celebrating the frustratingly elusive certainty of remembrance. Eventually the poet, and Polley, and all of us, must throw up our hands and simply agree: “We, of that time, are no longer the same.”
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.