Thursday, June 6, 2013


Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is not a documentary about her mother’s life story. It is a documentary about the stories about her mother’s life. That’s a key distinction. Rather than becoming a simple biographical exploration, Polley puts family members and family friends in front of her camera to tell their recollections and impressions of her mother, actress and casting director Diane Polley, who died of cancer in 1990. This is a movie about how a family reconstructs the memory of a lost loved one and how a family defines itself by the stories they tell about themselves. It’s achingly personal and inherently sloppily complex, but, recognizing that personal detail is just that, personal, Sarah Polley has created a film about itself as well. She reconstructs the facts, as best she can, but also engages both implicitly and explicitly with the question of who can ever really know the truth. Each person involved in the film has the truth they know, with which they’re, if not comfortable, than at least used to. In making the film, Polley, as generous as she is in allowing for each interview to speak and be heard, has inevitably put just one more interpretation into the world.

Though all people, one assumes, are carrying some number of secrets, it is soon apparent that Diane had perhaps a few that are bigger than most. We start with her husband, the person who presumably knew her best. As the film begins, Polley invites that man, Michael, the man who raised her, into a recording studio. She places a thick stack of pages filled with writing in front of him. He begins to recite what we quickly come to understand is his story of his relationship with Diane. He becomes our narrator, linking the varied memories revealed by Polley’s brothers and sisters, aunts and family friends. We learn about Diane through their eyes, but it begins to take on the feeling of literary analysis. To hear them talk about her is to hear discussions similar to what one might hear in an undergraduate course discussing a novel’s main character. Repeated motifs of her life are picked apart for their implications. Actions become rich with ambiguity. Emotion and ambition, spoken and, more often, unspoken, are read carefully. Of course, by virtue of being a real person and not text on the page, these readings are mutable and fallible in ways for which only subjective personal experience can account.

The film is a massive, tricky undertaking that anyone who has sat around a table with loved ones and found contradicting memories behind famous family stories can relate to. That Stories We Tell not only doesn’t fall apart, but grows richer and more intriguing as it goes along is something to be commended. It feels long, but Polley earns her film’s pokiness and digressions. As the story, augmented by archival footage and strategic reenactments, comes into clearer focus, as some mysteries become not so mysterious at all, as the facts lead only to unanswerable questions, it’s clear that this family’s story is one that is both complicated to an observer and simple to those living it. It’s only when they’re forced to stop and think about it, by revelations they’ve recently discovered and through the act of making this documentary, that the attempt to draw a clean narrative arc fails and they’re left seeing the complications of it all.

In the end, those who knew Diane are left wondering, “Why did she do what she did?” and “What was she feeling?” While these questions are worth pondering, they are also meant most for her family alone. Polley makes no effort to solve these unsolvable riddles. Instead, she concludes with a section of film devoted to the participants reflecting upon the very nature of the film. One man, in particular, is a bit reluctant to allow his version of the story to be juxtaposed with others’. His is the version of the story that fills him with satisfaction since, after all, it is the way he experienced his life as it happened. In the end, it is the man who raised her who says that, as writer and director, it is Sarah Polley herself who is controlling this story. Her camera has taken in all views. But by deciding who gets heard saying what when, she has ultimate say. This is an unresolved tension that Polley leaves open, a nagging and tantalizing loose end every bit as rough and deeply personal as the stories her family tells.

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