Caution: This documentary review contains spoilers. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
Directed by Sarah Polley, The Stories We Tell, in some ways, is the rarest of documentaries: that where the filmmaker turns the camera on themselves. In a revealing examination of her family history, Polley explores the period in her life when she discovered that the father who raised her was not in fact her biological father. Shocked by her mother’s infidelity, she sets out to find and meet her birth father as she deals with the ramification of the truth set before her.
Stories We Tell is a powerful and bold exploration of Polley’s family secrets and, conversely, how we define ourselves. Through her use of family footage and revealingly personal interviews, she does not shy away from details regarding her mother’s affair, her family struggle or even her birth father’s identity. Creating what must have been a personally taxing project must have been a daunting challenge for Polley yet she and her family members remain brutally honest about their frustrations, fears and heartache regarding the reveal.
But, the biggest surprise within Stories is not the infidelity.
As the narrative winds down, Polley pulls the camera back even further to reveal that the ‘historical footage’ that we’ve trusted all this time was in fact created for the film. Although the footage seemed authentic due to its grainy look and jump cuts, it was actually an illusion the entire time. In doing so, Polley provides a visual reminder that stories ultimately emphasize one perspective over the others, and that outlook is inevitably tainted. We’ve trusted the footage because, after all, we trust the documentarian. Why wouldn’t Polley be honest with us? The quality of memories seemed believable, therefore we believed it.
Through her decision to use ‘pretend’ footage, Polley opens space for the film to explore the very relationship between perspective and truth itself. Too often, we shape our ‘truth’ to fit our comfort zone rather than allow ourselves to see from another point of view. In a world of multiple narratives, we must be cautious how steadfastly we hold to our perspective insofar as we minimize the stories of others. The story of conquest and victory can also be the story of suffering and invasion. The story of wealth and achievement can also be the story of dominance and poverty. In the most Canadian of twists, Polley sheds light on the fact that there are multiple sides to each story and that each story has value. (After all, our nation is supposed to be the cultural mosaic, aren’t we?) When listening to another person, do we walk blindly within our own worldview? Or are we willing to lay our assumptions–and, perhaps, our judgments–aside in order to really understand them? It’s in this conversation that the tension lies between judgmentalism and truth itself.
While The Stories We Tell appears to wear its heart on its sleeve at the outset, its motivations are really much more complex. By causing the viewer to revisit the way in which they comprehend the world, the film reminds us of the importance of putting aside our expectations of others.
And, in the end, that may be the most Canadian truth of all.