Film Review – Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley‘s documentary Stories We Tell, exploring her own family’s secrets, is beautiful in the refreshingly honest way it goes about showing its results. Polley builds the reveals and tensions in a natural way that gives the movie a chance to make an impact with a very insular issue. She starts, surprisingly, with the set-up of interviews with her brothers and sisters. Her dad, Michael Polley, also does some narration for the film that he has written himself, and we see it being recorded. While this was off-putting and dragged a bit, making me wonder what Polley was trying to get across, as things move forward, the purpose of this set-up becomes more clear.
This is a story that starts with the director’s mother, Diane Polley, who died many years ago, and is centered around the questions of what the full family history is, especially around Sarah Polley herself. This history is slowly revealed through conversations with family and friends. As aspects of Diane’s life are brought up, the central search becomes very clear, but it is the way Polley goes about revealing the story that makes it interesting. She takes her time building a picture of who Diane Polley was: an actress, a mother, a wife, etc. This makes Diane as clear as anyone who isn’t there to give their own side. When secrets are revealed, we have a new narrative to follow, interviewing new individuals with their own emotional stakes and insights into Diane, and then further reactions from the family.
In her desire for honesty, Sarah Polley allows the audience to see her family members and family friends talk about her mother with more honesty than most films would use. She lets shots stay with us, showing the film equipment to indicate when it was not “official questioning,” including comments of the participants being uncertain if the film should even be made. This gimmick also goes into her father’s voiceovers, where we see the recording and even see Polley having her father repeat lines, and him providing commentary.
While we are clear on what her family thinks of the story at hand (which I won’t give away), what is conspicuously missing is Sarah Polley’s own take. We never see her interviewed, only hear her reading e-mails she sent or received about the topic. Yet this is her film, and the way she edits it, as her father says, will be how the story is interpreted. Is this her own belief? Polley goes out of her way to show the process of how the story is being told and the thoughts of her family members on why she is making this film and what they think will be problematic with how it is expressed to an audience. Either Polley is fooling the audience into thinking we are seeing the process, or she wants to be as honest as possible. And I am going in favor of the latter in that she seems to lay bare everything, including dissenting views on the project and letting us see off-set moments that break the illusion of visual truth and show how easy it is to manipulate an audience. This makes for some interesting viewing, but things do get bogged down in Polley’s process. Still, she’s able to recover to make a satisfying ending.
This was not just an interesting subject but, in the end, a fascinating exploration into making a documentary. This was by far the most insular subject matter that I have seen a documentary take on, but Polley’s sure hand and transparency make it as fascinating as seeing some of the biggest sex and business scandals that have marked some of the bigger recent documentaries. We feel like we are getting at some kind of truth, and while that is still in the eye of the beholder, this film is emotional, stimulating, and makes you want to know more.
Final Grade: A