illustration by Brianna AshbySomewhere, on an 8mm cassette, buried under a pile of dusty artifacts in my parents’ garage, lies an old home movie taken on a family trip to Yosemite. I am operating the camcorder.
“I can’t see anything! It isn’t working!”
“Did you push the button?” my father asks. “Is the red light on?”
I am trying to film a waterfall. I want to narrate it like a nature documentary on TV.
“It’s all black!”
In my memory, my parents keep walking away from me, up the trail, as my frustration turns to panic. I still can’t see anything. It still isn’t working.
Then, a stranger’s voice: “The lens cap is on.”
The arrival of a video camera in our household coincided with the arrival of my younger brother and older sister, distant cousins who joined our family after their mother died. Despite the upheaval in all of our lives, and the lasting joys and conflicts that ensued, our home movies from that time are fairly unremarkable. These days, we can quickly capture most any moment on our phone and immediately share it via e-mail, so it might seem to strange to remember that, back then, home movies took a lot more planning—and the footage was often much more boring as a result. There’s a forced singalong around the piano at Christmas time; there’s my sister rolling her eyes at my father’s, “Tell the folks at home what you’re doing!” There’s a different trip to Yosemite, this time in winter: all of us sledding down small, self-made hills, trying to enact a scene worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos. We never stood a chance, our “bloopers” end in giggles and our cries for help ring false.
I’m certain I am remembering important details wrong, but even if I watched these home movies today, and recounted the events exactly as they occurred, my perception would surely differ from my siblings’. My truth about growing up in our patchwork family differs wildly from my older brother’s, but our two truths are much closer to each other than to the truths of our three younger brothers. We’ve argued over the details of what happened when we were young, but as adults it’s often easier to live in our isolated truths. Like many dysfunctional families (like all families, as the joke goes), we seem content to let the story lie. It can be hard, often painful, to interrogate family mythology in search of some unified truth.
Say “truth” enough times and it loses all its meaning.
Stories We Tell is Sarah Polley’s deft, open-hearted interrogation of her own family’s scattered mythology. The initial facts are clear enough: Sarah Polley was born to Michael and Diane Polley. She was the youngest of five siblings. When Sarah was eleven, Diane died, and Michael raised her alone. When Sarah was eighteen years old, she discovered that a longtime family joke was true: she was not her father’s biological daughter. The film eventually reveals Sarah’s paternity, but the most compelling mystery is her mother, Diane, the one member of the family no longer alive to speak for herself. Polley interviews the small galaxy of people who orbited Diane, including her siblings and her mother’s old friends, in an attempt to get the full story. It may sound like a documentary, and it sort of is, except for the parts where it’s not.
In the film, Polley explicitly states that she is trying to get at her mother, to reconstruct her from what was left behind. Separating the art from the artist has its merits, but here it is impossible, as Polley lays her artifice bare: from the opening scenes the audience sees the shot being set, the director directing, and the narrative taking shape. Polley casts herself in dual roles – the blameless child at the center of her family’s story, and the mastermind behind the camera – and this duality is what makes Stories We Tell sing. In harnessing the conventions of storytelling to tell an untellable story, and in letting the audience see all the strings, Polley creates one of the most affecting and honest films about family that I’ve ever seen.
Based on conversations I’ve had with friends who’ve seen Stories We Tell, there seem to be two common reactions to the film. The first is to tell your own family’s secrets, the story you would tell. The second is to discuss the universal truth that all families are self-mythologizing to a certain extent, that each repeats certain secrets and stories that they feel represent a larger collective truth. But inevitably, that second discussion brings about your own family secrets, and there you are again, telling your story—so maybe there really is only one common reaction to the film. Like all of my favorite works of art, it inspires intense recognition.
People love to tell the stories of their family because it seems to explain something about them. If you knew what I grew up with, then you’ll know why I am the way I am. I saw Stories We Tell with a new acquaintance, and afterwards, we spent an entire hour on a bench sharing the deepest secrets of our families like some sort of crash course in friendship: Why I’m Fucked-Up 101. In interviews, Polley has remarked that people keep coming up to her to share their stories after they see the film, and she seems surprised, both that people have been so moved by her intensely personal film, and that their reaction is to immediately let her in on their own intensely personal stories.
The stories my family tells are enacted over and over again through our actions towards each other, as when one sibling quits speaking to the others over some imagined slight, or another calls his genuine hurt and frustration “imagined.” One time, my brothers and I were playing Trivial Pursuit, and the question was, “Where is Otis Redding from?” and my older brother said, “He was ‘sitting on the dock of the Bay,’ so San Francisco.” I said, “’He left his home in Georgia,’ idiot,” and even though it’s the smallest thing, I have always felt guilty about that response. The smallest hurts echo the larger ones. In my family, we communicate through sarcasm and insults, and I carry that into my interactions with the world, which is perhaps why it is challenging for me to write earnestly about a film that I truly loved.
I want you to watch Stories We Tell. I am speaking to you, the reader; I am speaking to my family, who may or may not be among you; I am speaking to the world at large, throwing my semicolon-laden sentences into the ether in the hopes that someone sees them, starts in recognition, and decides to take a look. The Polley family’s experience is singular, but it’s also the same as all of ours.
I never plan to write about my own family, but, well, I always do. Truth in fiction, as the old trope goes. I can’t speak for all writers, but in my case, fiction is simply a more comfortable realm in which to explore old truths. The storyteller holds the power here—or most of it, anyway—and for those of us from large families, or broken families, or households where we were often left to entertain ourselves with imaginary worlds, it’s a power that we simply lacked growing up. Writing gives me space to figure out what I think, and to be more emotionally honest—more in control of my own truth—than I am capable of being otherwise. Watching Stories We Tell, it seems that directing offers much the same. While Polley certainly pays respect to everyone’s version of the story, ultimately she has the final, artful word. And in her control, in all its specificity, her story becomes universal, as all great stories must be.
When it comes to family, all of us are artists.
Elisabeth Geier is a writer, teacher, & etc. living in Portland, Oregon. She has previously lived in Dallas, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Lafayette, California. She would be happy to direct you towards the best pizza in these locations.