Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Diane Polley, Rebecca Jenkins
Watch Stories We Tell online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / TalkTalk TV / iTunes
“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.”
That’s Sarah Polley at the start of her documentary Stories We Tell. An exploration of her parent’s marriage, it sees the filmmaker delve into the cupboard of her family’s past and unearth some surprising skeletons. The most interesting skeletons, though, are the ones that aren’t really there.
Ostensibly a piece of factual filmmaking, Polley interviews her dad, Michael, about his late wife, Diane. But she also interviews Diane’s friend Harry Gulkin, her own sister (Joanna) and her brother (Mark), each of whom have different ideas of what Diane was like. Was she happily married? What happened when she had the chance to leave to star in a play in Toronto? Then, just as things start to seem uncertain, she introduces archive footage of her mum alongside dramatic reenactments starring another woman (Rebecca Jenkins).
What’s real? What’s staged? What does she believe? Stories We Tell throws its different accounts together in a blur of vox pops and styles. Black and white 8mm footage is interwoven with crisp digital images, the range of styles mimicking the faded nature of memories; a collage of confusion.
On top of it all, Polley repeatedly undermines what she shows us, zooming out from interviews to reveal herself and the crew standing nearby. As a result, when she uncovers a shocking truth about her background, the discovery feels more honest yet also more elusive. “Why not leave things as they are?” says her dad, reciting aloud an essay she has asked him to write. She interrupts: “Dad, can you read that line back again?”
Shot throughout with a gentle humour – her dad’s rambling tangents about flies are endearingly hilarious – and a frank openness, Stories We Tell is a film made up exactly of that. It’s a tender film about her family, but also a documentary about the intangible nature of truth itself.
“I can’t work out why I’m exposing myself like this,” she says at one point. Neither can we. But the end result is a fascinating watch, which, like many of the best documentaries, changes the form completely; a unique, personal piece of cinema.