A few minutes into Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s documentary about her family history, I decided I wasn’t going to like the movie. I have a natural disinclination towards documentaries built on recollections. Stylistically they’re built on talking heads, recreations and snippets of stock footage – a far cry from the cinematic creativity behind most fictional films – with the assumption that because this is a true story it’s more meaningful.
Except it turns out that Polley’s film is more interested in examining the truth of the story of the intricacies of her family history as it is the history itself. Her candid interviews with her close family members prove to be contradictory and complicated, contributing to a knotted web of half-remembered facts and anecdotes. It coalesces to something meaningful and emotional but never entirely consistent.
Documentaries rooted in the past are challenged by the fallibility of memory and the way we shape our own experiences to a neat narrative. Life isn’t neat enough to be contained in a two hour film; Stories We Tell recognises that, interrogates that, and captures the shape of one person’s life (that of Polley’s mother) regardless. It proved far more intelligent than I had initially expected.