Directed by Sarah Polley
‘Stories We Tell’ Screened as part of DOC NYC “Short List” at IFC Center on November 17, 2013. Find the film on Netflix – HERE
Memory is a strange thing. It plays with you. Some recollections are perfectly clear and others are in some cloudy ether, floating around with random colors and images. Sometimes, you don’t know if you have a real memory or if an old home video has implanted its data and tricked your brain into some out of body nostalgia. As a human resource, memory is at once crucial and flawed, lasting and ephemeral.
It’s those competing qualities and universal truths that lay the foundation for director Sarah Polley’s illuminating documentary “Stories We Tell.” She, as documentarian, director, and investigator, curates a collective recollection of her family life, compiling a bank of interviews, stories and memories with concentric circles of friends and kin and others. Polley, like any good lawyer or journalist or parent before her, knows the inherent difficulties in acquiring facts from other people. A scattering of subjective voices rarely puzzles together an objective truth, but it can often mold an outline.
The film commences with a quote from Margaret Atwood, Polley’s fellow Canadian, who writes in her book Alias Grace, “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” It’s how that confusion of voices is organized narratively that determines our comprehension. In this regard, Polley, both an actress and narrative filmmaker, has astute, soft touch, subverting the documentary form by creating a lively and heart-felt amalgamation of genres, quickly escalating from its slow beginning into a bristling picture with thrills and questions.
The subject and ultimate instigator to Polley’s familial discoveries is her mother, or “mum” as she calls her, Diane Polley, a former actress with a big smile and infectious attitude. She died of cancer when Sarah was just 11, but she left her biggest (question) mark while she was alive, seen in the many lush 8mm home videos. Living in Toronto with two kids from a previous marriage and a daughter with Michael Polley, then her current husband, Diane left for Montreal to star in a play. Sarah was conceived during Diane’s two-month hiatus there, but Diane’s sexual fidelity remained an untouched talking point…until this project.
In a rare storytelling form, Sarah has her father Michael (another actor, most recently of the wonderful television series “Slings and Arrows”) prophetically write and narrate the entire account in third person in a recording studio. He carefully considers each sentence, reflecting on his rocky marriage and career. This prose is supplanted with sibling interviews, unsure of what they’re getting into with their younger sister, and their conversations evolve from innocent reminisces to more potent memories.
As more clues unfold, so do more characters, including Harry Gulkin, a portly movie producer with hair like Einstein. Sarah recreates some of this home footage with other actors, though the old handheld grainy cameras and uncanny lookalikes prove to be difficult to discern between what was real and what was re-enacted. In a Q and A after the DOC NYC festival screening, Polley admitted she thought the difference would be easy to tell on screen. To her benefit, this lack of clarity only adds more thematic layers.
Polley’s last project, “Take This Waltz,” with a sappy Michelle Williams, projects some of these feelings and family history: coping with falling in and out of love. Each frame of that film adds narrative punch, compositions accentuating her character’s story. Here, even in documentary form, Polley continues to utilize the camera as her own storytelling device, subtly contextualizing her father’s candid remarks about Diane with Harry’s, creating momentum with stillness. Polley is one of the smartest, most perceptive directors in the field right now. Her resume behind the camera is small but heavy.
Stories We Tell is ultimately less a documentary about obtaining a perfect retracing of events than it is a meditation on the fragility of human faculties. Polley takes herself out of the equation in this retelling, aiming this project to reach a higher level than simple self-catharsis. Most of her memories of “mum” were handed down to her anyway. Her thoughts had already been infected.
Michael recites a line from Pablo Neruda near the end to summarize his life without his wife Diane. “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” It’s a knockout line. It’s unforgettable.