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stories we tell, truths we discover.

Have you ever been asked to recount the story of your life from beginning to now?

A blurry Michael Polley in 'Stories We Tell' (2012)

I haven't personally, but I've imagined how I would respond. Sometimes I’ll envision sitting down for an interview, or a documentary even, to share the truth of my background and where I came from. And in my mental retellings, I've noticed that even in that imagined world there are gaps in my recollection.

There are holes in the story.

There's a strange expectation that straddles the term 'documentary' - the idea of 'true'.

But true to who? Who knows the truth when the webs of our lives are weaved so intricately? When stories are tangled within one another?

Sarah Polley discussing her film.

In Sarah Polley’s docu-film Stories We Tell (2012), she attempts to uncover the truth of her personal origins after a family secret was shockingly unearthed.

By interviewing her family members individually, Polley was able to see her mother through new lenses and was able to find the source of her own beginning. Utilising the voices and memories of many, the truth is seemingly discovered that Sarah is not who she believed she was, and that her mother held many secrets.

Polley’s half-sister Susy Buchan states at the outset of the film that it’s “like a medley” of stories, coming together to form a bigger piece. The collage of stories come together to create a story that both confirms and contradicts itself, proving that memory is not consistent with all who contain it.

In the scene where Diane is described by those closest to her, the accounts of who she was vary from person to person (Eric Kohn, 2013). To her children, she was an angel and a hard worker. To some friends, she was an open book, but to others she was private - a mystery to be uncovered.

Diane Polley in 'Stories We Tell' (2012).

The impact of these accounts in succession of one another is integral to the intention of this film; the truth is something to be uncovered only through the recounting of many differing stories, pieced together like a puzzle.

Though we seek clarity, often our questions brew more questions than they do answers. This film utilises blurriness throughout as a visual device to indicate the uncertainty in Polley’s piecing together her own story, allowing for the audience also to step into her confusion as she seeks.

As discussed by Anderst (2013), the idea of true and false is played with in this documentary through its visuals as well as its words – many of the scenes we see of Diane in her younger years are fabricated using actors, while some of the footage is authentic. This plays into the theme spread across this film that it is hard to distinguish between reality and imagination. Even the reconstruction of moments is a comment on the fleeting nature of our memories and how much of them are constructed.

A true image of Diane Polley (home movies).
A false image of Diane Polley (fictionalised).

So why do we so heavily desire what is true when it is hard to attain?

Maybe in telling stories and in seeking truth, we hope to fill the gaps within us – we hope to find the facts and we anticipate the wholeness it may bring. Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, shares this thought in a letter that is read in the documentary:

Sarah Polley in 'Stories We Tell' (2012).

“My dear Sarah, when you make a documentary about your own discovery of a new father, are you doing so to avoid your own deeper concerns of its real impact on you? Is that why you describe it as a search for the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memory rather than a search for a father?”

- Michael Polley

So maybe there are many truths, and maybe the only way to uncover them is to listen to others. To make time to hear the stories they tell. Maybe then we will find what we are looking for.



Polley S (director) (2012) Stories We Tell [motion picture], National Film Board of Canada, Canada.

Anderst L (December 2013) ‘Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography’, Senses of Cinema (Issue 69), accessed 18 May 2021.

Kohn E (7 May 2013), How Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’ Explores Multiple Versions of the Truth’, IndieWire, accessed 18 May 2021.

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