Sarah Polley has become one of the bright lights on the Canadian cinema front. Whether it is as an actress in films like The Sweet Hereafter, My Life Without Me, Go, and Exotica and a mini-series like John Adams or as a director of films like Take This Waltz, Away From Her and now the documentary Stories We Tell. Her star continues to rise because of the clarity of her vision as a director and her sensitivity as an artist. The lady knows what stories will connect with audiences and how to tell them to do them justice. Bottom line is that this young actress/director is doing herself, her family and her country proud.
This time she is again behind the camera and for the first time making a documentary. It is a documentary of a supremely personal nature. The subject it is unraveling the story of Polley’s own family. Using the mystery (literally) of her family story she is showing how memory and myth affects our histories as people and family units. Truth depends on who is telling the story and Polley gives many members of her family time in front of the camera to tell their versions of the story. And as the documentary goes on we see that there are several different viewpoints and that not everyone sees things as they really are. Some are shown to be less reliable than others.
Using the brilliant method of asking consistent questions it allows the viewer to see who is changing their stories or not being consistent. That is another way she allows the viewer to be part of the story. We get to decide ourselves and are not being spoon-fed Polley’s point of view.
The film revolves around Sarah Polley’s our origins. Who her biological father is? A few years prior to the making of this film she found out that her mother Diane had had an affair around the time Sarah was conceived. That meant that the man, Michael Polley, who had raised Sarah as his own daughter was not her biological father. That begs the question, “who is Sarah Polley?” This is the crux of the film.
Behind the lens Polley directs and steers the film like a mystery film. It unravels in layers and little bits of information at a time. Secrets are shown to be something that every family has. Some just have bigger ones than others. Using interviews with family members, family videos and even dramatic recreations Polley tries to get to the bottom of things.
As a director she does make decisions like any other director would. Polley has decided not to tell her story in a linear fashion. That is her prerogative. She is not being manipulative; it is just a way of telling the story. A decision like any other decision and it serves the story well. The seemingly haphazard storytelling does serve a purpose. She is crazy like a fox Polley is. It forces you to pay attention and think on your feet about what it happening. The film and story becomes an intellectual as well as an emotion experience. It feeds all our needs. Occupies both heart and brain. We are forced to think about DNA as well as love of family – meaning thinking about what it means to be a family.
Stories We Tell really forces you to question what the truth is and how we determine what it is. That is the reason that the film will resonate with many people. It is not just about Polley’s family and its secrets and truths because basically and with all due respect, who cares? Why it does reach out and connect with us is because of the universal experiences found within it. This could be anyone’s story. The secrets are revealed, the shock is experienced and then some reconciliation happens. It is not wrapped up in a pretty little bow, but change and evolution does happen within the Polley family unit. The truth is what is shown to be most important. Even though Diane Polley kept a huge secret she is not judged harshly. We all accept that she must have had her reason. The truth is sought and dealt with not shied from.
A brave, personal, interesting and most importantly original piece of filmmaking. It certainly is one of the strongest Canadian films of the year.