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Review: Stories We Tell (2013)

Stories We Tell (2013)

Directed by: Sarah Polley

Premise: Filmmaker Sarah Polley interviews members of her family to discover the truth about her mother, who died when Polley was very young. In the process she uncovers family secrets.

What Works: Documentary films are uniquely suited to deconstruct life and the cinematic form, and Stories We Tell does both. This is a picture in which a filmmaker delves into her family’s complicated history, interviewing her siblings and several men who were a part of her mother’s life in an attempt to uncover the truth about this woman. The film is a narrative kaleidoscope. It does not settle on one version of who her mother was but rather juxtaposes several different opinions as told by various people. This is revealing of the way a single person may take on different identities at different times and in different company. It is revealed that Polley’s mother conducted several affairs over the course of her life and one of them may have resulted in the director’s conception; at this point Stories We Tell is not just about uncovering the personality of a deceased parent. It is also about Sarah Polley’s search for her own identity. But in the search for the truth about her father, Polley and her commentators reflect on the way in which these new discoveries retroactively impact their previous understandings. Her family members (perhaps benefitting from living in and around the arts) are able to reflect on the messiness of their lives in a very articulate way, especially Michael Polley, the father. Michael provides narration, as over seen by his daughter, and the way in which the film reveals their bond cozening as opposed to shattering over the revelation is very heartwarming and adds another dimension to the complicated web of relationships. The narration also helps the film because Stories We Tell critiques the act of storytelling itself. The juxtaposition of conflicting narratives interrogates the way stories mold our understanding of ourselves and the way our presumptions and prejudices impact the stories we tell and how we tell them.

What Doesn’t: Stories We Tell constitutes a filmmaker airing her family’s dirty laundry. That, and the fact that the mother is no longer around to defend herself, could lead some viewers to see the film as distasteful and even exploitative. Since the family members enter into the film willingly and given the sensitivity with which Sarah Polley approaches her subjects, these charges ought to be dismissed but the film does face some of the challenges inherent to this kind of documentary filmmaking. It can be argued that any kind of family profile inherently makes private matters public and even though the subjects interviewed are willing participants there are others, off camera, who have their lives dragged into the spotlight whether they want to or not. This is an entirely academic debate but it is worth keeping in mind as the film unfolds. There is also a question of methodology. The decision to juxtapose different visions of who Polley’s mother was may be viewed as a compromising the integrity of the movie. This is addressed directly by the commentators and Polley’s point is to illuminate the limits to which we can know ourselves and each other. The fact that Polley acknowledges the foibles of this approach diffuses the criticisms and actually makes the picture even more interesting. But an argument can be made that Stories We Tell actually reveals nothing, even if that is the point. However, that criticism is only relevant if the film was solely about Polley’s mother when it is clearly about something much broader.

Bottom Line: Stories We Tell is a smart and sensitive tale about the impact of knowledge and the limits of knowing ourselves and each other. This film is essential viewing for those interested in the documentary form but it is accessible enough to be enjoyed by mainstream audiences as well.

Episode: #475 (January 26, 2014)