If you’re reading this now, you’ve probably slept through enough nights to know what it is to wake up to the absence of someone you loved. The ache of without seems to spread forth from within to taint the day, and all the days, ahead. Without and what if and what could have been. The hypotheticals corral your thoughts like hyenas. Imagine that you could go back in time and film that lost person: capture a gesture you loved, their lips at a certain angle, their voice, or their laugh. In her beautiful documentary Stories We Tell, child star-turned-precocious filmmaker Sarah Polley has done one better: she has captured her vivacious, charismatic, and fun-loving mother Diane—who died of cancer when Polley was 11—not as she was, but as she is remembered.
How? Through home videos and actor reenactments shot on super-8 film (see: her mother dancing, her mother pushing the camera away as she picks up the telephone, her mother walking across a bridge with her father, her mother laughing and smiling and smoking) as well as through interviews (hear: the lump building in her father’s throat as he recalls their last moments together, her sister laughing about her mom’s dancing, the gravelly voice of an old friend talking about Diane’s marriage). In the film everyone gets to tell Diane’s story except for Diane herself, the subject. The object.
Stories We Tell possesses all the requisite elements of a conventional documentary (interviews, old photographs, voice overs, etc.), but it doesn’t play out like one. Polley appears to be less interested in telling a coherent story than in listening to everyone share their version of how did it happen and from the beginning. For Polley’s father Michael, the beginning reaches back beyond his birth, his wife’s birth, the births of their parents and their parents’ parents, and so on, ad infinitum. There is, Michael reasons, always an egg-within-an-egg-within-an-egg with DNA that will, one day, be you.
Stories We Tell follows Michael’s nesting doll line of logic. While recording her interviews, Polley always deployed two sets of cameras: one to capture each subject in the traditional medium close-up, and another to capture herself and her crew at work filming the interviews. During the editing process, she spliced these two reels together. The combination of these meta shots with Polley’s extensive, meandering interviews instills the viewer with an intense awareness of the multiplicity of possible viewpoints. It also foregrounds the limitations of each—and every—perspective. Polley knows she can’t zoom out to an angle wide enough to capture the panorama of her family’s story; however, that doesn’t stop her from trying, from revealing the intricate architecture of her own neurotic intelligence in the process. It seems incidental to the film’s aim that Polley manages to spin a banal family drama into a suspenseful narrative.
I won’t reveal the complexities of Diane’s story here as the pleasure of discovering the story along with Polley far outweighs the pleasure I would derive from describing it. It’s enough to say that Diane’s story is an archetypal one: the once ambitious, free spirited, beauty finds herself stuck in an increasingly loveless marriage to a man who’s failed to live up to his initial promise. And “deep down, all the while,” Diane, like Emma Bovary, “was waiting for something to happen.” Of course, as with Emma, something does happen, and that is where the stories of both mother and daughter truly begin.
Measured in tears, Stories We Tell is the most moving film I’ve seen since the first five times I watched The Lion King. Diane is an exceptional yet poignantly normal person, and by asking friends and family to tell their own versions of Diane’s story, Polley captures what it means to lose a friend, a mother, a wife, a lover. Sitting cross-legged in the theater’s dark chill, watching Polley’s siblings break down in tears as they recalled their mother’s early death, I broke down, too. I cried not only for Diane, for Polley, for Michael, but for all the people I’d lost, people I knew to be exceptional but whom the world had labeled normal.
About suffering they were never wrong
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
Polley has taken Auden’s words deeply to heart: she never permits the suffering of a single person to occupy the screen for too long. After painful monologues about depression, after tears, after harsh words, Polley never fails to cut to a sibling or friend “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Her mother’s suffering—with cancer, a stifled marriage, withered ambition—is surrounded on all sides by the banalities allotted to the ones left behind. As these cuts between tonally disparate scenes accumulate, the individual viewpoints grow increasingly distinct, creating the overall image of the family as a group of molecules agitating against each other in water over a gas-lit flame. Each unit suffering in the heat.
Towards the end of her film, one of Polley’s siblings says, “I’m not sure [Mom] was loved by the person she really wanted to be loved by.” He means, by Dad, by her husband, by Michael, a man who embodies the stiff upper lip of a previous generation of men. And yet when Michael talks about Diane’s death, he starts crying. It’s one of the most genuine and affecting moments in the film. A few scenes later, reflecting on how Diane perceived him, Michael says, “How is it we talk and talk without somehow conveying what it is we’re really like?”
Michael’s right: we talk and talk and yet learn only by doing, believe only after seeing, pinch our thighs to verify we aren’t dreaming. Polley’s film is full of talking but it’s not the words, not the stories, not the old letters that bring Diane back to life, but the home videos and actor reenactments. It’s Diane’s raw physical energy, her lively gestures, and sudden laughter that convey what she’s really like. It’s how she held a cigarette, the way she waved goodbye.