Stories We Tell is about just that. There are a lot of story levels to this documentary, Sarah Polley's first. (We showed her previous film, Take This Waltz, a few months ago.) Let's do some accounting: there are Sarah's interviews with her siblings, father, and family friends; there is the narration by Sara's father, Michael Polley, from his own memoir; there is archive footage of Sarah's mom, Diane Polley, and Super 8 from the family, all commingled with contemporary footage shot by Polley with actors hired to play her family; finally, there is the story of the compiling of all these stories. Late in the film, Michael Polley points out to Sarah, his interviewer, that the process of her film making is ultimately akin to the story that each participant is telling; what one considers worth telling is just as important as what one leaves out of a story, the details and opinions the teller deems irrelevant. From all her footage and from all her sources, Sarah decides how the story of all these stories will be told.
The secret--the reason for this layer yarn--is not much of a secret at this point, but I won't spoil it. It's enough to say that it's a family secret having to do with Sarah's mother. One interviewee (I won't say who) raises the point that the documentary might be somewhat futile. Diane, the "owner" of the story, doesn't have a voice. In her absence, what authority do the people she left behind (Diane died of cancer in 1990) have to tell her story for her?
Polley doesn't answer this question outright, but certainly addresses the issue in the make-up of the film itself. We are reminded throughout the documentary that we are watching a story that has been compiled and arranged by one person. We see Sarah filming her family during interviews, we see Sarah filming her fake family for the re-creation scenes. We see Sarah in the sound booth directing her father as he reads from his memoir. One of the last scenes is Sarah recording with her father, who, as the film is ending, is presumably reading the end of his memoir. In the middle of one line--his own line, about his life--his director interrupts him, asking for him to try the reading again.