Sarah Polley’s touching, illuminating and genre-twisting documentary Stories We Tell is an examination of her own family’s history, detailing the love affairs and marriages of her mother Diane via interviews with relatives and others that knew her well. It’s also something of a statement of appreciation and love for her family, which highlights the bonds that exist between parents and their children, and siblings. However, it’s anything but straightforward: Polley cleverly turns the age-old formula of modern day talking head testaments coupled with archive Super-8 home video footage into a film that questions the accuracy and the reliability of storytelling and memories, and creates a thought-provoking piece that was inexplicably overlooked by the Academy when the Shiny Gongs were handed out earlier this year.
Polley is a Canadian actress and director best known for her roles in Doug Liman’s Go and Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake, as well as making her own films Away From Her and Take This Waltz, and this is her first attempt at making a documentary. It begins intriguingly, with one of Polley’s sisters candidly asking why anybody would be interested in watching a film about their family, before the life of their extroverted mother is discussed extensively by her English second husband Michael, her children (some of whom are from her first marriage, which is discussed less), her lover Harry Gulkin and several other friends and relatives. It is revealed that Diane, who died of cancer aged 55 when Sarah was 11 years old, was an actress who – it seems – lived life to the full, bringing an innate sense of joie de vivre into every room she entered. Her effervescence made her extremely popular with her peers, and her children fondly remember their own times with her. Michael, on the other hand, is a classic introvert, a man who is happiest when sitting in silence and who appears to prefer the company of the flies that enter his apartment than that of many human beings; even though that makes him sound like an eccentric oddball, he comes across as a perceptive and thoughtful person with his marbles all present and correct.
A while back Michael was inspired to write about the story of his marriage to Diane, and as such he acts as a kind of narrator here, reading on camera his own words that detail his own life with Diane and their children. While some elements of Diane and Michael’s marriage and family life appear to have gone very well, Michael’s story and the interviews also reveal that the amount of passion in their relationship lessened over time. When Diane met film and theatre producer Harry while performing in Montreal she fell in love once again and entered into an extra-marital affair; the effect that this has had on the family and Harry is explored in depth here, with a surprising twist in the tale. Yet as the interview and archive footage stacks up and we automatically begin to form our own opinions, the director cleverly subverts this type of documentary filmmaking by directly questioning the reliability of the storytellers, even pulling back the curtains on her own methods as a filmmaker in order to make her point. Without wishing to give too much away, this is executed superbly, foreshadowed early on when the camera slowly pans around Michael’s kitchen to reveal a mess that had been kept off screen up until that point; the message that you can’t trust what the camera shows you is made both subtly and – later – more directly, and it’s clear that the viewer should always be aware that there is much more going on outside of the rectangle than we see on screen. Equally, there is information we will never get to hear and thoughts that will never be shared.
I hasten to add that it’s not as if the statements by friends and family members interviewed are in direct opposition to each other, and no-one is revealed to be a liar, but certain things are remembered in slightly different ways by different people, and even long-held assumptions are revealed as being untrue. The contradictions are often surprising, and sometimes predictable, and the one voice that would be able to shed the most light on the story at the centre of Stories We Tell (or at least to confirm what is and isn’t accurate) is, of course, missing. Diane’s death at a young age lends the documentary an air of sadness and the fact we never hear her voice means that consideration of what is absent here, of one person’s account that is not being told, is always on the viewer’s mind.
The testimonies are often funny and often poignantly sad, and as such the documentary covers a wide range of emotions. Some are more nervous than others in front of the camera, but the fact that they are talking to someone they know extremely well soon settles the interviewees, and there’s a degree of openness here that a stranger would never be able to elicit. This candidness, as well as Sarah Polley’s clear skill as an editor and documentary filmmaker, is the answer to the question of why anyone would find a documentary about this family interesting. Free of warts-and-all sensationalism, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking film that explores memory, perception and family bonds in a smart, fascinating and honest way.
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Written by: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michael Polley, Sarah Polley, Harry Gulkin
Running Time: 106 minutes