stories we tell posterDir. Sarah Polley
(2013, PG-13, 108 minutes)

Away from Her announced Sarah Polley as an important new director. Stories We Tell confirms it. (Her shaky second film, last year’s Take This Waltz, had me worried for a minute.) It’s her first documentary, in which she turns the camera on herself and her family to recount an important event in her life. Autobiography is a risky endeavor for a filmmaker, who might come across as self-indulgent, but Polley takes a different approach: instead of a straightforward retelling, she uses her own story to explore how our lives are broken down and reconstructed by our memories, and by the end are transformed into something that may be entirely different.

That description may make the film sound opaque, but despite its experimental approach it’s entirely accessible. It overflows with emotion without being maudlin. It brought to mind my own memories of family, and how my perceptions may be quite different from others’, and how objective, factual truth gives way over time to a deeper, more meaningful kind. I was overjoyed and heartbroken by this film.

sarah polley stillIt derives its power, in large part, from how Polley accepts the elusiveness of the past. She sets out to investigate the life of her mother, Diane, who died of cancer when Sarah was a child. To do so, she interviews her father, her older siblings, and Diane’s surviving friends and acquaintances, but Polley understands that these recollections, many of them contradictory, will not reveal any fundamental truth about her mother. Instead, we view these remembrances as echoes of Diane Polley, imprinted on her loved ones. Sarah also shows us glimpses of her mother, but in recreated super-8 footage where Diane is played by an actress, Rebecca Jenkins, so even when we think we can see her, she remains out of reach.

Diane is the only person in this film who isn’t around to speak for herself, but in learning about her through these second-hand accounts, we’re able to understand how her life affected others, and that is no less meaningful. It may be even more meaningful, in fact, than hearing Diane’s story in her own words. We all exist in our own minds. We tell stories about ourselves that may be as tenuously linked to reality as everyone else’s. Many of the facts may be lost in the shuffle, but the more we exist in the memories of others, the more we figure into the stories of our friends and families, the more we love and are loved, then the more alive we truly are, and in constructing this film, which Polley has directed and edited together into a narrative of her own choosing, she has brought her mother back to life and shared her with us, and for that I, as a viewer, felt gratitude.