A family affair – ★★★★½
Canadian film-maker Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell is a young woman’s search for answers about her family that ends up being more of an exploration of the lies and half-truths that people use to get by.
Polley is one of the most beloved members of the Canadian film community and has gained as much praise for her two recent directorial efforts (Away From Her and Take This Waltz) as she had for the acting filmography that stretches 25 years. She started acting as a five year old and is probably best known for lead performances in Dawn of the Dead and Splice but doesn’t appear in front of the camera very often anymore.
While her mother was a fairly well-regarded stage actress, it’s still fair to say she isn’t exactly coming from an infamous film dynasty worthy of investigation. However it was a lifetime of doubts over her parentage that forced her into turning her curiosities into a documentary. Her mother Diane is no longer alive so she conducted interviews with her siblings and all the major players who were active during the early years of her mother and father’s marriage. It’s hard to know how much more a reviewer should give away as so much of the film’s charm is in watching the truth be uncovered as it goes from being a tale of a typical city-living upbringing toward something that has more in common with a sensationalist TV special.
As secrets are uncovered what becomes most refreshing is the participants collective willingness to open up to Polley, telling her whatever they can because of a combination of trust in her and raw admiration for her mother, who died when Sarah was 11. They are each told to give their version of the truth and it’s fascinating to see the different versions of events that shaped the family’s identity. You get the sense no one would lie in their “interrogations”, but it seems some may have comforted themselves over the years by overestimating their own roles in Diane’s life. The most charming participant is almost certainly Sarah Polley’s father Michael who is only now, at 80 years old, starting to discover the intricacies of his own role in his wife’s life story. Michael provides a voice-over adapted from his own memoir and sits down for a more relaxed interview with his daughter.
Polley shows her technical skills as a filmmaker by restaging key scenes from her mother’s life with actors and shooting them on Super-8. It may take you a little while to realise there weren’t amateur filmographers present for the Polleys’ first meeting or Diane’s funeral, but Sarah eventually leaves the audience in no doubt that material has been fabricated. Ultimately this device all fits in with the film’s central trick of delusion and secrets and considering most documentaries nowadays feature an over-use of “moving photographs” and “The Ken Burns effect“, it’s refreshing to see something like this or the CGI re-enactments used in Droh Moreh’s The Gatekeepers to keep things engaging amidst a mass of talking heads.
The film sags a little in the middle and there will be people who’ll be bored or even outraged that they’re being asked to spend almost two hours with a little-known, unassuming film-maker as she digs into her family tree. But put that aside and enjoy an engaging story of a family of the arts and their cast of supporting players who are only now discovering how best to tell an origin story.
Canada / Directed By: Sarah Polley / 108min / Documentary / Release: 28 June 2013 (Ireland, UK)