A fearless expedition into the swamp of family myths
I used to be convinced that my family was one-of-a-kind. We were a bunch of odd people, each one with his or her own quirks and issues, assembled to a dysfunctional organism that just barely hold together. So was the story, so were the myths we built around the self-appointed strangeness – or “stroke of insanity”, as my aunt labelled it in a lowered voice. “It’s in our genes. It’s who we are.”
Of course I was wrong. Not in that our family had issues – we had, and we still do. But I was wrong to flatter myself with the idea that we were so unique and no one, apart from my sister and brother, possibly could have an idea of what it was to be a part of it.
After gathering some life experience, gaining my grey hair, I realized being dysfunctional was normal. All families are to some extent; I have yet to meet one that isn’t. Every family has a mythology. We all carry stories about shame, pain and regrets about bad life decisions. We tell those stores to ourselves. There are secrets hidden in every house on the street where I live, areas that are left alone in conversations, because it’s easier that way. Someone could get upset.
If you know your family history well enough you can get glimpses of the past as you’re looking through photo albums or watching old home video. But the stories we tell about the pale and blurred images are usually simplified and not entirely accurate. We adjust the truth so it becomes more convenient, without the sensitive parts. It makes it much easier to carry. And when enough of time has passed we start to believe that our edited stories actually are the truth.
Stories We Tell
The Canadian director Sarah Polley had a family story that she wanted to learn more about and she didn’t stop at the photo album level. What were the circumstances around her birth? What was the truth about her mother and father? There was something hidden beneath the official family record, but what was it? She went out for a search, asking family members, friends and working colleagues of her parents to give their different versions in the documentary Stories We Tell.
Without spoiling anything, the family secret that is unveiled isn’t all that much to be upset about. I’ve seen families that are more dysfunctional and I’ve learned about secrets far more intriguing and devastating. But the film has an additional meta-layer and this is what makes me love it so much. At the core it’s not a film about Sarah Polley’s family history; it’s a film about what the title says: the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s about how we tell them, why we tell them and what influence they have on our lives. It’s the kind of movie that makes you think.
After seeing it I felt a sudden urge to make an expedition into my own family’s misty swam of myths. Somewhere deep into the storage I know there’s a box full of diaries and photo that I saved from destruction when my grandfather died but never gave a closer look. Maybe an excavation could throw some light on the stories that still are obscure to me?
I wouldn’t give it too much hope though. What I’ll get is yet another version, yet another story, the one that my grandfather told himself and others. But the truth? It’s still out there. It always will be.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, CA 2012) My rating: 4,5/5