Once upon a time … truth, memory and storytelling

I was a bit late to the party with watching Sarah Polley’s 2013 documentary, Stories We Tell, but I’m so glad I eventually made my way to it.

‘Truth is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.’

Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell (2013)

At first glance, it appears that Sarah Polley’s documentary, Stories We Tell (2013), is a modern-day fairytale celebrating the life and loves of her mother. Peer under the surface, however, and we soon see that the doco is more of an expedition into the elusive nature of truth and memory, how the narratives we construct shape us, and who actually has the right to tell a story in the first place.

There’s so much to say about this doco but let’s look at three examples of how it explores the wobbliness of ‘truth’.

  • So, so many points of view

The first thing we notice is the democratised story-telling process. A bit different, right? The multi-author approach is a flip on the usual documentary / biographical convention of deferring to a ‘hierarchical notion of authority’ (Anderst 2013) or the idea that there is—or that there should be—a single or dominant voice to tell the story.

It is through this collaborative approach, however, that Stories We Tell exposes the ‘discrepancies in the stories’ which is ‘one of the main focuses in the documentary’ (Polley 2013). Consider Anne’s conviction that Diane ‘did not have two faces for the world’ alongside Deidre’s sense that she was ‘a woman of secrets’ (Polley 2013).

Stories We Tell presents these contrary views sans judgement, delivering us viewers a playful, yet powerful, message about the elusive nature of truth. Later in the film we learn that Harry subscribes to the idea of a single truth, maintaining that it’s ‘not that there are different truths, [it’s that] there are different reactions [emphasis added] to particular events’ (Polley 2013). Though not Harry’s intent, his comment plays beautifully into the idea that truth is not a single, pin-downable thing.

  • It depends how you slice it

Michael’s perspective on collaborative storytelling is more liberal, however he also reflects on how, in the process of editing the film, Polley will ‘turn it into something different’ (Polley 2013) than if someone else did the editing. It’s recognition by Michael—and we might suggest by Polley— of the biases we all bring to the stories we tell and how to some extent we all ‘script our life stories’ (Waites 2015:553), deciding what to keep, what to discard, and what to reshape to fit our preferred narrative.

Singer maintains that these ‘memory illusions’ result ‘from [our] basic human need to make sense out of events’ (Singer 2002:361), which is basically saying that we mould and remould our memories to fit the preferred narrative of our lives. Not terribly truthful!

Harry’s contention that he is the rightful storyteller goes to the crux of one of the most divisive questions in literature—who gets to tell whose story? Although this question is posed, it isn’t answered, leaving us to ponder the moral dilemma of story ownership.

  • Fake news

Polley further underscores the fallibility of memory—and by extension the fallibility of ‘truth’—by interlacing actual film footage with re-enacted scenes (Diane socialising with Harry in a Canadian bar being one example). As Waites notes, this ‘blurring of real with dramatised footage underscores the elusive boundary between memory and imagination’ (2015:545).

Having fallen victim to this sleight of hand, I’d argue that the doco achieves its aim of having the audience question how we distinguish the line between truth and fiction, and again calls into question the idea of elusive or ephemeral truth.

‘Truth is not separable from the acts of thinking or believing something to be true.

Pivcevic 1997:15

Most of us will know Pivcevic’s contention better as ‘one’s perception is one’s truth’ and what we are presented with in Stories We Tell certainly supports that idea.

Possibly the most important take-away, however, is that truth and memory is contingent on both the teller and the audience.

Hmmm. That’s food for thought.


Anderst L (December 2013) Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography, Senses of Cinema, accessed 7 May 2020.

Pivcevic E (1997) What is truth?, Taylor & Francis Group, London.

Polley S (director) (2013) Stories We Tell [docufilm], Madman Entertainment (header image taken from the doco).

Singer T (2002) ‘To Tell the Truth, Memory Isn’t That Good’, Montana Law Review, 63(2):337-372.

Waites K (2015) ‘Sarah Polley’s Documemoir Stories We Tell: The Refracted Subject’, Biography, 38(4):543-555.

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