Friday, September 6, 2013

FI: Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell
Canada, 2012
Written and directed by Sarah Polley

How can you document an absence, or relate a truth that is only known to the one person who can't be there to talk about it? Actor/director Sarah Polley attempts to do this by turning her family's history into an intensely personal documentary in Stories We Tell. Polley's mother Diane passed away some years ago, and here Sarah examines her legacy and relationship with Sarah's father through interviews with family members and friends. To go into any greater detail about the plot would be to do the film a disservice. Suffice to say, the family's history is perhaps not as straightforward as one might assume.

Polley's stated goal is to examine the differences in the stories people tell about her mother, where these discrepancies come from and what they say about how we construct our personal histories and identities—and those of the people who are no longer here to speak for themselves. She looks at how these tiny variations are propagated through selective memory, limited perception, and the biases of the person telling the tale. It's a story of refraction, of the many colors that blend together to approximate the white light of truth. In this case, the primary shades are her father's (actor Michael Polley, of Slings and Arrows fame) memoirs—here read aloud by Michael in a voice-over session we watch Sarah direct—and a wealth of home movies, letters, and photos. But, as ever, even these are only one avenue through which to perceive the story, and all perceptions can be misleading.

One of the film's best traits is this sort of self-awareness. At one point, Michael calls his daughter on this, pointing out that her edited footage is simply one more story being told. Polley is a sharp enough filmmaker to have seen this coming, and the ways she plays with the telling of her own story are unexpected, yet fitting. In that way, Stories We Tell is surprisingly engaging for a film about a woman of whom most of us will never have heard. The enigma of Diane Polley's contradictions makes for a fascinating story, and all of the interview subjects are self-effacing and hesitant enough to key us in to the mystery that is afoot. But the nature of that mystery, and the ways the film reveals it, leave us wondering about the secrets our own families may have buried within the stories we tell, as well. That sense of universality through specificity is what saves Stories We Tell from seeming too insular or self-regarding, and makes it a film to which anyone can relate.

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