This is not an easy film to figure out. In theory, it’s a documentary about actress/director/generally-awesome-person Sarah Polley’s journey to discovering that her birth was in fact the result of an affair between her mother and a film producer whom Sarah had never known. However, Polley hired actors to make “home movies” of past events in order to reconstruct the story, which is not exactly the way documentaries are typically made and in fact is somewhat antithetical to the basic concept of a documentary.
Within the film, Polley herself discusses the fact that she’s filming a “project” about her discovery and using it to show how people tell stories and warp their memories to their own purposes. She openly says that she isn’t sure whether the project is for herself or the family or an audience. But if that’s what she’s doing, including discussions about that being the point and “recreating” the past with enacted scenes works against the idea that she’s showing how reality and memory are not the same doesn’t really make sense.
So what is it?
In the end, after discussing what she’s trying to do, she ends up revealing the truth while everyone else discusses the ideas of truth, storytelling, and memory: it’s simply a woman trying to connect with a mother she lost before she was old enough to know her by reconstructing her out of the memories of others and what tangible evidence she can find. In that way, it is a very personal project and one whose ability to affect an audience should, by all rights, be limited.
Instead, it is one of the most moving, affecting, fascinating pieces of filmmaking a person can see, and I hardly even know how to say what makes it so special.
There are moments, like watching characters riding a bus in shots that essentially match those beautiful shots of Sarah herself in The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, Canada 1997) and the shots of her reactions to her father reading his own written account of this entire situation, that are effective because of the restraint that they show and the way they pretend not to manipulate the audience at all.
There are other moments like some of the descriptions of Joanna Polley’s desires for a film career and deep-seated independence that hold resonance simply because we, as an audience, already know her daughter and can see how she came out of this background.
So many moments in the film work so well for so many different reasons that it’s tempting to think that the film is actually a camel, built out of disparate parts thrown against a wall and only somewhat fitting together. However, it most definitely is not. Everything in the film is carefully chosen to deepen its picture of Joanna Polley while we accompany her daughter on this journey of discovery. Even the sequence of discussion about this “project” being a rumination on storytelling and memory is really there to say, “I don’t have the memories to tell the story of my mother. The best I can do is construct her out of others’ memories and story.” Polley’s focus on her point is admirable and the fact that she could stay so focused in such an unusual film highlights just how silly it is how so many filmmakers cannot do it in fictional narratives over which they have complete control.
Ultimately, Stories We Tell is a difficult phenomenon to explain. It’s a brilliant and deeply affecting film, but it is so unlike anything else that you will ever see that it’s difficult to explain its greatness. It won’t be winning the major awards that it should win because of its singularity, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I have rarely been happier to have seen a film than I was with this one.