Stories We Tell is the sort of documentary that stays with you long after the final shot. On the surface, it’s a film about the director’s search for her mother, who died when she was very young, by interviewing her extended family and her mother’s friends. But gradually we become aware that not only was her mother a fairly unique character, but that the reason behind the film is more complex than simply wanting to know a mother who couldn’t be there. There is more than just one story here.
The film evolves, rather skilfully, into a treatise on how we consider the true story of our lives, and how a variety of narratives can co-exist. Director Sarah Polley (an actress who has starred in a variety of films, including Dawn of the Dead) ensures that we are aware of the process of filming from the very start, and this self-consciousness is important in underlining that narrative is created rather than simply existing. Indeed, like all good narratives, the film constantly surprises. As we get to know the various family members and friends, information is dripped to us that widen our picture of their history, subtlety adjusting what the true story of Sarah and her mother actually is, right up to the very last talking head.
But Polley isn’t intending to trick us, and the film is at times both tender and poignant. We see the family and friends preparing to be interviewed, as well as reacting to the process, bringing them closer to us as people. The fact that the film is able to both engage fully with its characters, and simultaneously comment on the notion of truth and story-telling, is both wise and hugely affecting.