Following 2012’s mawkish love triangle movie Take This Waltz, Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley steers away from fiction altogether and steps into the treacherous world of documentary with Stories We Tell. Released as part of the DOXBIO 2013 program, it’s a biographical essay film, tackling the unspoken truths and family lies that have engrossed the 34-year-olds’ life. It could have been yet another forlorn, syrupy mess, but turns out to be one of the most intriguing and poignant films of the year thus far.
‘Why would anyone want to know our story?’ This frank statement from Polley’s older sister Susy permeates throughout the film’s opening prologue, as we get a snapshot of a liberal, white middle class family from Toronto, Canada. So far, so normal, but this astute young filmmaker buries herself into the family history to unleash a story of great mystery and intrigue. Those revelations are probably best left unsaid here. Suffice to say, Stories We Tell’s many twists and turns left me picking up my jaw from the floor; fluttering between being astonished, mournful or stuck in a laughing fit throughout the near two-hour running time.
Comprised of archive home video footage and extensive ‘interrogations’ with her family and friends, Polley sets out to paint a portrait of her mother Diane, an exuberant, would-be starlet who passed away in 1990 when Sarah was 11 years old. To build up the picture, Polley’s reclusive father Michael, a former actor himself, candidly narrates the whole film through a recital of his fantastic biographical prose, detailing the intricacies of his working and romantic relationship with Diane. The effect is both haunting and emotional, removing a subjective barrier that is so often prevalent in documentary filmmaking, and given us a direct homage to this remarkable woman.
More surprising than the small story revelations is Polley’s deft ability to make them cinematically enthralling. It’s a far cry from a nuts and bolts thriller, yet there are many moments in Stories We Tell where you could cut the tension with a knife. The air of trepidation starts with the pensive documentary subjects; particularly the host of friendly siblings who are worried that divulging their ephemeral memories of Diane will change the public perception of her. Ultimately, this fear ends up in the hands of Sarah Polley herself, and her longing to reveal the family skeletons in the closet.
This alone would make this curious little film a riveting watch, but Polley goes a step further to engage our interest on her personal pursuit for the truth. Circling around the idea of malleable memories and hidden meanings, she ignites our curiosity and we start to consider our own family secrets, and who can really claim ownership of a story or memory?
Stories We Tell doesn’t necessarily fall into a succinct beginning, middle and end structure. But, then again, neither does life, does it? Despite a few meandering moments and the overzealous use of archive footage, the film never feels twee or indulgent. In fact, it’s entirely absorbing, an achievement that Polley has created such an intriguing personal essay film that not only manages to eulogise her upbringing, mother and family altogether, but bring along the audience for the ride. After a protractedly rousing big-finish and the humorous credits come to a close, you’ll walk out of the cinema believing that Sarah Polley could be one of the most exciting young filmmakers of a generation. Not only because the story she’s just divulged was so darn absorbing, but because it leaves you questioning the lies, the hidden truths, and the stories told by the people that surround us.
This documentary was first seen at CPH:DOX 2012, one of the world’s biggest film festivals dedicated to documentary practice, with an interest in particularly experimental audio/visual work. You can follow all of my coverage here. For more info please visit the festival website.