Memory and Narrative in ‘Stories We Tell’

Stories We Tell offers a sophisticated retelling of a family’s story that calls into question the nature of memory and narrative. It consists of extensive interviews, voiceover narration, archival footage, and staged footage to tell not multiple stories, but a single story from multiple perspectives.

These perspectives come from director Sarah E. Polley’s family and others she has brought together for this retelling. The story centers on Diane Polley, described as an outgoing and effervescent individual liked by everyone. Even in these early descriptions, though, slight disagreement occurs among the storytellers about Diane’s character. One suggests that Diane lived life out loud, while another suggests that she harbored secrets.

Despite these disagreements, though, Stories We Tell offers a cohesive unfolding of events. It begins with Diane’s meeting Michael Polley, falling in love with him, and later marrying him. The two have children, but their divergent personalities result in a stagnant period in their marriage.

Diane then receives an invitation to appear in a play in Montreal, requiring her absence from home for several months. She goes with Michael’s blessing, and his visits to her and her return home bring some spark back to the marriage. At 42, Diane discovers she is pregnant with Sarah. Sadly, Diane later develops cancer and dies at the age of 55.

The unfolding of Diane’s story, though, contains several surprises along the way. The first comes with the revelation of her first marriage, which ended bitterly because of her affair with Michael Polley. She lost custody of her children and was limited to monthly visits with them as they grew up.

Another surprise centers on Sarah. As a joke her siblings tease her about not looking like their father, and she later begins to take the question seriously. After some investigation, she finds out that her father is Harry Gulkin, with whom her mother had an affair for several years both during and after the play. A paternity test confirms the suspicions, though a brother reveals he suspected as much.

The remaining surprise is not for us, but for her father, Michael Polley. Sarah struggles with telling her father or not, just as Gulkin and others seek to make the story public anyway. Eventually, Sarah tells him.

While all of these events might sound like a soap opera plotline, their retelling here is gentle and warm, not overwrought and melodramatic. For Michael Polley, the revelation changes nothing about their relationship. For the rest of the Polley family, the revelation changes nothing either. That level of acceptance and trust is profound.

According to Polley, the documentary gives equal weight to everyone’s take on the story, but Gulkin disapproves of this approach. He feels ownership of the story and its retelling because of his strong connection with Diane.

But not everyone does receive equal weight. Michael Polley gains the most time through his interviews and his writing of his voiceover narration, which someone else speaks. Gulkin, too, receives more time than others. And Sarah Polley’s presence is known throughout the piece.

Early in Stories We Tell, Polley says, “It’s an interrogation process,” in reference to the documentary’s production. This piece in particular highlights the uses of interviews in creating cohesive narratives and arguments. Interviews bear the weight of multiple interested parties, including the subject and the director. Tensions emerge between what the subject wants to tell and what the director wants to know. One sister, for example, raises a question of why people would even want to know the family’s story.

Another tension emerges in the aspects of production, as in recording a usable interview. The documentary shows a little bit of the staging in these interviews, with the lighting, the prompting question, the subjects’ nervousness, and their exchanges. And while multiple interviews might reveal multiple and possibly conflicting viewpoints of a particular story, in the editing process they become again a singular experience. In Stories We Tell this process creates a mosaic of memories.

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