Sarah Polley’s poignant documentary Stories We Tell is full of surprises: for Polley as both the largely unseen protagonist and as a filmmaker, for her family and family friends who are interviewed, and, ultimately, for the viewer. Storylines take surprising turns; even the movie’s genre, scope, and focus shift in surprising ways. It’s an excellent cinematic Russian doll.
Knowing this, let’s hope that you’re reading your first article about the movie. I suggest you avoid other reviews; most of them contain spoilers. Stories We Tell isn’t a mystery movie, but watching it without preconceptions will allow it to have greater emotional impact.
The movie begins as a dramatization of memoirs written by Polley’s father, Michael. He focuses in particular on his late wife Diane, who died of cancer when their daughter was 11. Interviews with family and friends run throughout, as do old family videos and other footage. Polley took over five years to compile and stitch together around 250 hours of film into the final documentary.
Another important figure is family friend Harry Gulkin. He’s most known for producing Lies My Father Told Me, a Canadian film nominated for an Oscar in the ’70s. To avoid details, let’s just say that, like that film, Stories We Tell features an adult who reassesses the contradictory narratives of their childhood. It’s often funny and often heartbreaking.
Polley impressed many when she transitioned from child star to serious actor, then again when she started directing (her first feature, Away From Her, was nominated for an Oscar). Her leap to documentary is just as stunning. Most interestingly, she tackles the very definitions of documentary film and filmmaking. Beyond being a portrait of her mother or the story of a family secret, Stories We Tell is a reflection on filmmaking. Is a documentarian a fact recorder, muckraker or storyteller?
When Polley’s second film Take This Waltz came out last year, many wondered if it was autobiographical. Polley and the protagonist share several similarities, the most discussed being that both divorced and found new partners. Stories We Tell suggests that Polley may have been inspired, at least subconsciously, by someone else entirely. All three of her features describe long-term marriages where the wife’s affections shift to another man. What’s new — and most powerful — about Polley’s latest film is its exploration of infidelity of another sort. Storytellers may stray from fact, but they still tell important truths. ■
After watching the movie — try hard to resist clicking right now — check out Polley’s blog post about it for added context.
Stories We Tell screens tonight, Friday Oct. 12, as part of the Festival du nouveau cinéma at the Imperial Theatre (1432 Bleury), 6:30 p.m., and opens in theatres Oct. 19.