Stories We Tell (2013)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -1; L -4; S/N -4. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them…
Ecclesiastes 1:11

Filmmaker Sarah Polley and her father Michael, who largely narrates the film.

2013 Roadside Attractions

In this documentary Canadian actress/director Sarah Polley is like an archaeologist digging up the past, in this case the past of her mother actress Diane Polley, who died prematurely of cancer in 1990 when Sarah was 11 years old.

She interviews her siblings, relatives, friends, and her mother’s theatrical colleagues. In a studio she records her father Michael Polley presenting his memories of his wife, and intersperses re-enactments of the events in simulated 8 mm throughout the interviews. She uncovers a family secret that could have divided the family, but instead it brings them closer together.

Sarah observes, “I think it’s a universal thing in every family, that people have their own specific versions of pivotal events or even small memories. They are a 100 percent certain that their recollections are the truth because whatever the truth is, as they recall it, has formed them and it is part of their history. Discrepancies in memory preoccupy families, and the idea of this fascinated me.” A fascinating film, about memory and how we accept ours as the truth, suggesting that the “truth” is really made up of a mosaic of shared memories. Also, had there been movie cameras when “The Preacher” wrote Ecclesiastes, he might not have written the above passage.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Whose story telling did you enjoy the most? How did they agree with others, and at what points did they differ? Have you noticed similarities among your own family members when they speak about a past family event?

2. In many families there are just one or two members who like to tell family stories: what about yours? Is there one story that especially defines your family—and if so, what is it?

3. One of Sarah’s interviewees resists the idea of everyone telling the same story, he suggesting that only two people “have the right” to tell it, namely the two people involved. What do you think? If one of those people is dead, can we every really know “the truth” ?

4. In light of the family secret about Sarah and Diane, do you see any irony in the use of the song “Ain’t Misbehavin” ?

5. Everyone remembers Diane Polley as a fun loving, adventurous woman—and yet how does she also seem to be woman hemmed in by tradition and responsibilities? What did she give up when she married Michael—and were they temperamentally suited for each other?

6. How might this film helped you sort through the stories told in your family circle? Why is it important to keep telling those stories? For a good answer to this watch the wonderful Barry Levinson film Avalon in which the grandfather at family celebrations gathers the children together to tell them stories of how the brothers came to America and struggled to achieve their dreams.