The most moving passage of “Stories We Tell” comes toward the end, when Polley allows the camera to rest on the now-grown children Diane left behind, their faces offering wordless, wounded testaments to the lingering effects of her loss. In many ways, this film is a natural outgrowth of Polley’s directorial career, which began with the masterful “Away From Her” and continued with “Take This Waltz.” Both address issues of memory, marriage and selfhood similar to those that animate “Stories We Tell.” A few years ago, she felt compelled to write director Terry Gilliam an open letter recounting her experiences as a child actor on the set of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which left her feeling endangered and traumatized — another case of memory and story colliding. For her next directing project, Polley has optioned “Alias Grace,” the Margaret Atwood novel she quotes at the beginning of her new film: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.”
Giving voice to her version of her experiences, as well as those of everyone else involved, has a resonance that is almost political for Polley, who is well known in Canada for her activism in anti-poverty and progressive electoral politics.
“I do feel like it was really important that everybody get a chance to be heard,” she explains. “Nobody’s full version is in the film, but . . . we got every person’s perspective. That was also part of my decision not to do a voice-over and have it be my story. Because inevitably, that would overshadow every other version. It just seems to be a real injustice: getting to be architect of a film and deciding how it will be structured, and then being the person editing that film. To also then intervene with my own perspective, I felt like that would be kind of tyrannical.”
As for Diane, the mother she lost so young, the process of making “Stories We Tell” has had the contradictory effect of bringing her back and keeping her all the more elusive. “Even in the middle of all the noise and points of view of who she was, and getting to speak to all her close friends and family members, just immersing myself in those contradictory versions of her, I do have the sense that I know her better after making the film,” Polley says. “But,” she adds wistfully, “I will never know if that’s true.”
Stories We Tell
(108 minutes) rated PG-13 for sexuality, brief language and smoking, opens May 17 at Landmark’s E Street Theatre, AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, and AMC Shirlington.