The other night I went to see “Stories We Tell,” a much-praised autobiographical documentary by Canadian actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley. (Stop here if you plan to see it and haven’t already.)
In the course of the film, family secrets come to light: Sarah’s dad is not her biological father—her mother, a charismatic actress who died when Polley was 11, had an affair while away from home acting in a play.
Polley not only learns the identity of her biological father, but also hears one of her interview subjects reveal that her mother considered having an abortion when she got pregnant with Sarah. She unfolds these events on screen through shifting points of view and stories told by multiple participants, including: her father, her biological father, siblings and family friends. She herself stays mainly behind the camera, asking questions, directing the action.
Polley has described the film as an experiment in storytelling, a meditation on the shifting nature of memory and truth. It’s more about “why we need to tell narratives about our lives,” she has said, “than about my family and the nitty-gritty details about us.” Even so, “Stories We Tell” is also an investigation aimed at ferreting out precisely those nitty-gritty details.
For me, the most moving moment came near the end when Polley’s dad, the man who raised her, gently asks if one of her motivations was to have a pretext for asking the very specific questions that were on her mind, to get an accounting of some sort. Polley simply assents and moves on. Even though this exchange contradicts her stated rationale for the project, she is honest enough to include it in what we see.
The scene serves as a reminder that artists’ purposes and desires are mysterious, often even unto themselves. This may be especially true even when the subject matter is autobiographical and yet it scarcely matters.
What counts is the work itself.