Thursday, September 05, 2013

Stories We Tell

It seems too simple to refer to Sarah Polley's marvelous Stories We Tell as a documentary. The film is a record of actual events, specifically the life of Polley's late mother Diane and her experiences while doing a play in Montreal in 1978. Polley's still living father Michael is the narrator and hero of sorts; we hear Michael's own account of a family upheaval and come to love the selflessness and and dignity of this elderly actor who is all too aware of his own limitations. Yet when Sarah's story and her way of telling it becomes clear then Stories We Tell becomes something darker and more complicated. The central question of the film is whether Diane's time in Montreal resulted in a man other than Michael being Sarah's biological father. I have no idea in what order Sarah Polley conducted the interviews that make up the greater part of the running time, but it’s only after a series of conversations with Michael and her siblings that Sarah begins to ask questions of people who might not be so happy to answer. The portrait of Diane (who died of cancer when Sarah was a small child) that emerges is of a woman who embraced her life, her marriage and her children but who perhaps never got all of what she needed from her husband. The extent to which Diane felt guilty about her choices because of events in a marriage prior to the one with Michael is a fascinating one, but of course the answer is unknowable.

Stories We Tell is finally about the difference between memory and truth. Sarah Polley uses a number of “home movies” of her mother and her family in the film, and on a superficial level they resemble the gauzy home movies that we’re used to watching on holidays with the family. If you’re watching and begin to think that the Polley family home movies are too perfect, or that they tie in too neatly with Sarah’s narrative then you’re on to something. We associate home movies with good memories, but they’re a construct as much as much as anything else. Sarah eventually does meet her biological father, and while he’s a good-natured and well-meaning man he’s as close as we get to a “villain” for the simple reason that he insists Diane’s story belongs to him. The very film we’re watching is a counter-example to that claim, since Diane’s life was more than one relationship and the consequences of her actions affected many other people. Each of the people interviewed has their own piece of the truth, but Stories We Tell belongs to Michael and the way his love for Sarah never wavers. The film is so dense and fascinating I almost want a second documentary on Sarah and the way the experience of making it affected her, her relationships, and the kind of film she might make next.

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