“Who cares about our stupid family?” asks Joanna Polley at the outset of Stories We Tell, a documentary by her sister Sarah. “Every family has a story. But I do think it’s really interesting to look at this one thing that happened and how it’s refracted in so many different ways.” You don’t often get such a blunt set of instructions for how to watch a film, yet Joanna’s comment also poses a direct challenge to the filmmaker. As demonstrated by the genealogy craze, people can become obsessed with uncovering their family stories, and sometimes this is just narcissism, dignified by the sober business of unearthing old photos and documents. For more than an hour, Stories We Tell makes good on its promise to find a larger meaning in the Polley family’s history. By the end, however, it seems like the work of a talented artist dulled by too much self-regard.
At the heart of Stories We Tell lies a fairly juicy secret. Michael Polley and Diane Elizabeth were both Toronto actors when they met and married; five children followed, Sarah the youngest, before Diane died of cancer in 1990. From childhood Sarah heard family members joking about her lack of resemblance to her father, but not until she was in her 20s, and a successful actor (The Sweet Hereafter) and director (Away From Her), did she learn that her biological father was Harry Gulkin, a Montreal film producer (Lies My Father Told Me) who’d had a brief affair with Diane Polley. Sarah asked Gulkin to take part in a DNA test, which conclusively proved his paternity, and then set out to tell this story onscreen, interviewing her siblings, her mother’s friends, and her two fathers. They paint an unhappy portrait of Diane Polley, a vibrant, charismatic woman who felt unloved by her diffident husband and who agonized over whether to terminate her late pregnancy by another man.
Sarah might have wrapped this up after her parentage is revealed about 70 minutes in, yet Stories We Tell continues for another 50 as she ruminates over the tale and ponders some of the discrepancies in different versions. That’s not a bad impulse—we all know from Rashomon that only a multiplicity of perspectives can reveal truth—but it gives us time to consider the artifice at work here and to wonder how Sarah’s celebrity figures into the power equation. Early in the film there’s a misleading reference to Michael Polley buying a Super 8 movie camera, which sets up an abundance of low-grain footage so perfectly illustrative that it must have been staged (only the end credits reveal that some of it was). Sarah explains that when Gulkin wrote a memoir recounting his affair with Diane Polley, she prevailed on him not to publish it, arguing that any public version of the story should include everyone’s take. Of course, only she gets final cut.