As any historian or writer of memoir knows, truth is a slippery fish. Facts and memories twist and shift depending on who’s telling the story, and the passage of time works its own watery transformations. In her latest feature-length documentary, Stories We Tell, Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley sets out to uncover a family secret. What she exposes instead is the multiplicity of truths, half-truths, and flat-out lies that populate the undercurrent of her life. Next Monday, UCSB Arts & Lectures screens Stories We Tell at UCSB’s Campbell Hall.
Polley was 11 years old when her mother died of cancer; her father, Michael, raised her. Sarah grew up knowing her mother mostly from hazy memories and from the stories her family told. Her older siblings would often tease her for looking nothing like her father — a joke everyone thought of as harmless — until Polley began to suspect it might conceal a truth.
Voted Best Canadian Film in 2012 by the illustrious Toronto Film Critics Association, this riveting, nuanced film constitutes a search for a lost mother and a father. In hunting for the truth of her origins, Polley combines extensive family interviews with faux-historical Super 8 footage to yield a poignant family portrait.
There are many revelations along the way. Everyone interviewed agrees that Sarah’s mother, actress Diane Polley, was the life of the party — the kind of woman who “walked heavily and made records skip” — a woman who simultaneously yearned for attention and defended her privacy fiercely. As portraits go, this one is cubist, jumbled and contradictory, coming to us in spurts of frank testimonial interspersed with the nostalgic home movies.
Woven throughout the film are Michael Polley’s poetic reflections on his marriage to the larger-than-life Diane. We learn that her first marriage ended with high drama that made the front page, and that her pregnancy with Sarah years later nearly ended in an abortion — Diane was on the way to the clinic when she changed her mind. Meanwhile, Sarah’s search for her true paternity takes her down dead ends, past roadblocks, and finally to a very complicated — and complicating — answer.
In the end, Michael is the unlikely hero of this story: the cuckolded husband and talented but unproductive writer who finally finds his voice late in life thanks to his daughter’s quest for the truth. The aging Michael writes and narrates much of the film: There’s ample footage of him standing at the microphone in a recording studio as Sarah mans the soundboard. It’s hard to know whether to interpret Michael’s wry wit and evident enthusiasm for the project as a heartwarming show of dedication to the daughter he raised or as chilling evidence of his ability to buffer himself from pain.
Unsentimental yet heartrending, Stories We Tell is an unforgettable meditation on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the consequences we face when we dare pursue the “real truth,” only to find it eludes us.
Stories We Tell screens at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, November 25, at 7:30 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.