‘Incredible’ … ‘family’ … ‘complex’ … ‘forgiveness’ … a few words drifted toward me across the café. Somehow, I knew the two women at the neighbouring table were talking about Sarah Polley’s The Stories We Tell.
It’s a film to be discussed. In the washrooms after the show, on the escalator on the way down from the cinema, I picked up scraps of intimate conversation. I imagined people fanning out from the theatre in twos and threes, sitting down for a glass of wine or picking up the telephone the minute they got home. By exploring different perspectives on Polley’s family history, the film invites us to air and rehash our own.
What captivated you in this film?
This the question I want to ask everyone who’s seen it. Was it the theme of nature versus nurture? The bringing of family secrets to light? Was it the radically different perspectives? The question of what really constitutes the truth? The character of the mother? What else? It’s a testimony to the film that the way we answer says a lot about ourselves.
For me, it was the way this theatrical family, so steeped in the business of conveying emotion, handled real-life moments of emotional power. The play Scratch by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman held the same fascination for me. The choice Polley makes in recounting the mother’s death in such a restrained fashion would be touching in any story, but given the context, it’s an unforgettable piece of film-making.
And there is the issue of loyalty. Yes, I wanted to find out who Polley’s biological father was, but for me the most suspenseful moments came when certain characters began vying for control of the narrative. Vying for belief in their version of events. The audience’s belief, I wondered? Or Polley’s? Or does the distinction blur at some point?
In Outside the Box, I wrote about something I came to call Dueling Narrators. When I was growing up, not only did everyone have a different version of events, but narrative became the metaphorical ground on which power struggles were waged. To show loyalty to someone, I felt I must subscribe to that person’s version of reality.
My struggles in writing Outside the Box had to do with forging my own narrative, deciding what to put in, what to leave out, how to arrange the material. I had to give myself permission to privilege my own perspective over the dueling narrators that had taken up residence in my head many years before. Asserting that I had the right to do that was terrifying, and shaping the narrative my own way became a forging of self.
Polley doesn’t offer much in the way of her own memories, but nor does she ever absent herself from the scene. There are constant reminders that everything we are watching is a construct (even the interviews … even the “home movies”). She’s ever-present as a witness, as a listener, and as the one who filters and arranges what we see. Her genius shows in the way she lets us in on her choices.
To me, the most touching moment in Stories We Tell is the one in which Michael Polley gives his daughter the story he has written, along with the choice of what to do with it. He, of course, becomes the narrator of the film.