Ever since I was a child, films, like good books, served as windows to worlds sometimes unfamiliar or far away due to distance in time or space. Movies depicted characters both fictional and historic, unraveled mysteries or documented adventures; they always engaged my emotions and attention. Some films are more familiar and familial, memoirs or morality tales that act like mirrors to my lived experience, or road maps of my internal journey. I prefer non-fiction to fiction. Most fiction, in my view, is simply reality in disguise, employed to protect the innocent and the guilty. As a memoirist I am most interested in the stories we tell and the stories untold about our lives.
Yesterday, I saw Stories We Tell, Academy Award- winning director Sarah Polley’s documentary film, featuring interviews of her family and a cast of supporting characters in her quest to seek the truth and challenge the stories her family told, by uncovering the secrets untold about her mother, her father and her birth.
Memory is malleable and able to transmute into its own mythology. Family members interpreted their individual experience through their own point of view and filtered prejudices, interweaving fact with fiction, formulating stories they could live with and accept as truth, while protecting loves ones.
The film reminded me of the importance and impact of preserving family oral history, that the telling and retelling of our stories serve different purposes. It’s a ritual that binds us together, though there are some stories, the secrets and untold stories, by their absence, might divide us.
Polley employs a number of cinematic techniques, including interviews of loved ones as an investigative reporter, reenactments by lookalike actors of past events, and by interweaving archival family movies. She captures a recording session of her father, Michael Polley, reading his personal narrative, his story told from the beginning to the end.
It’s a love story about two people who were in essence opposites, who loved each other, sometimes imperfectly, coming together, falling apart and coming together again in ebbs and flow, while raising a family and searching for meaning, connection and autonomy. Michael described the difference between his wife Diane and himself by saying, “She could do ten things at once well, and I was lucky to manage one thing, half-well.” There are more than one love stories told in Stories We Tell.
Preserving our memories is often bittersweet. One of the cast of characters quotes the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, when he says, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”
See this film and keep telling your stories, including the stories untold. Stories We Tell is currently playing in Madison, Wisconsin at Sundance 608 and will be featured in the Milwaukee Film Festival later this month.
For more reading about Stories We Tell.