It’s not often you see the film world collectively swooning over a documentary about one family’s personal baggage, but that’s what happened recently at the Telluride and Venice film festivals when they screened Stories We Tell, a film by the Canadian actress/director Sarah Polley.
It hasn’t gone into wide release yet, but boy do I want to see it, for reasons I’ll shortly explain. The trailer hints at an absorbing combination of mystery, wistfulness and affection:
Stories We Tell is about what happens when Polley, camera in hand, goes digging after some long-buried home truths about her family’s past. Depending how you feel about spoilers, you may or may not want to read Polley’s thoughts on how her film evolved – her essay will give the Big Secret away.
But if you do go there, her generous and thoughtful account of how her documentary came to be resurrects some questions that have always tantalized me: Can any one person own the family story? What do we do with diverging storylines and interpretations? Can they be weighed, evaluated and combined into a definitive version? Can there ever be a definitive version?
Also: Is it fair that some versions triumph over others because they are more compellingly told, not because they are necessarily more accurate?
That last question has always been vexing to me. It’s why I have always felt ambivalent about the whole memoir genre, even while I’ve been an enthusiastic consumer. The memoirist has the upper hand, after all. Parents, siblings, friends are characters in the memoirist’s drama, and their own personal truths are incidental to the central story the memoirist is shaping. (For a poignant and pointed response to this situation, read what Suellen Grealy had to say about her sister Lucy’s celebrated memoir Autobiography of a Face, and a related memoir by Lucy’s friend, the novelist Ann Patchett.)
Even the kindest, most perceptive memoirist can’t get around this problem in the end, I think. Genealogical writing feels safer, because it can be structured around a timeline of events rather than a minefield of feelings. I’d rather argue about a baptismal date any day than about whom Dad loved best.
On the other hand, a layered, multilevel approach is an exciting (if tricky) way to imagine family storytelling, and film, unlike the first-person memoir, seems ideal for incorporating overlapping and contradictory viewpoints. This appears to be where Polley is headed in Stories We Tell. In her essay, she writes that she “decided to make a film about our need to tell stories, to own our stories, to understand them, and to have them heard.”
Which is why I can’t wait to see it. The need to be heard is something anyone can relate to, whether they’re related or not.