In most narratives, the audience has a trusting relationship with the narrator. The person telling the story is usually telling the truth, or at least as far as the viewer knows. In Stories We Tell, the truth is told in a way that best suits each person’s experience.
Writer/director Sarah Polley uses artistic elements to tell the fascinating true story of her mother, Diane, whose full-of-life personality and shocking secret are gradually unveiled. The expressive documentary heightens the art of storytelling and how truth is sometimes altered through certain encounters.
The narrative is mesmerizing and charismatic through different personalities narrating their own version of the truth, but the story alone is something that has been heard and seen before. As a viewer, I kept asking myself “Why tell this story?” People cheat. People keep secrets. People live without knowing their biological father. Then I understood: It’s rare for an entire family to put their dirty laundry on the table, inviting the world to see it. That makes it a bold narrative.
For a film with little-to-no action, the story seems to keep the flow moving nicely enough to keep the viewer’s attention. There seems to be this automatic admiration for Diane as stories pertaining to her lively personality are being told, even when she’s weak from cancer and when they discover that she had a love affair that lead to a child. It is almost as if her charismatic charm masked her secrets that were buried along with her, leaving unanswered questions.
An interesting detail to the film was the interview portion. Most documentaries have formal or informal interviews that come off as uptight. In Stories We Tell, the fact that Sarah was interviewing people she knew made their answers seem natural and personable. They were in their element. The candid sibling moments lightened the tone of the conversation. It was almost as if the viewer was in on the set up, too, trying to listen to them as a crew member instead of an eavesdropping fly on the wall.
The movie blends the past with present as if you are watching what is being told in its original era. The juxtaposition of the two time periods adds an artistic edge to the story, except it was disappointing to know that it was mostly reenacted. It’s possible that there wasn’t enough actual footage to coincide with the stories being told, but it would have been less deceiving if there was more actual footage; it would have been more authentic.
An interesting twist to the narrative is that there seems to be a symbolic father-daughter message. It is almost as if the story was meant to be about a strong relationship with her father and new-found father. As secrets are unfolding about her mother, it seems as if the Diane is the center of the story until it transitions into the big picture of what it means to discover a new member of the family. Diane is a version of an opening act that introduces and leads the concertgoers into the headlining act, the whole purpose of the performance.
The film is slow yet captivating. It’s similar to a slow melody of a fascinating story about a fascinating woman with a broken past, promising future, lively personality and sorrowful death. These elements blossom into a story about a father-daughter relationship. It’s almost as if everyone’s story were the accessories to an outfit. Some pieces more memorable than others, but nonetheless a part of the outfit.
So what is truth? From the documentary, as cliché as it sounds, truth is in the eye of the beholder. In Stories We Tell, seeking truth and understanding it differ from experiencing and encountering it. The heartfelt tone of accepting truth, even if it’s something you didn’t actually see in order to believe, is highlighted, allowing the viewer to reflect on what they believe to be true.
Stories We Tell is now screening at the Violet Crown Cinema and Regal Arbor Cinema 8 in Austin. View the trailer below.