I had wanted to see this when it was released in cinemas back in June but unfortunately I missed it. Even in London you need to act sharply to catch the documentary features or do as I have done here and wait until they are on DVD.
Sarah Polley has acted in over forty movies and while she is a strong screen presence I think it is through her work as a director that she has really impressed. The first film she helmed, Away From Her, was a drama showing an elderly couple’s marriage dismantling in the face of the wife’s dementia. It showed the tragedy that getting old can sometimes be in an honest and insightful way, particularly so when you consider that Polley was just twenty seven when she made it. This was followed this last year with I Take This Waltz which also had the fragility of marriage at its centre (read on, you’ll pick up a pattern) and featured nicely naturalistic performances from Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan. Yep, Seth Rogan!
Stories We Tell looks a little indulgent on paper. Through a series of interviews with family and friends the film explores the life of Polley’s mother and the implications of this for her daughter. It is a personal tale rather than one of incredible deeds although there are compelling revelations that I won’t spoil here. What you realise though, as you watch the film is that the events described, while significant to those involved, are almost irrelevant. The point of telling this story is not to highlight it as anything exceptional but rather to reinforce the opposite. This is just one of many tales. Every family has a story all of which are worth telling just as much as this. It is not just a film about one particular human as much as it is a film about ordinary humanity.
Along the way the documentary raises universal questions about truth and honesty, about parenthood, about the tragedy and comedy of life, about mortality and once again about the consequences of love leaving a marriage. Sarah Polley does not make anything of her position as a successful Hollywood actor/director because this would be a distraction. She is just a normal person, that’s the point.
Of course this woman does know what to do with both ends of a camera and this is clear in the way the film is constructed. A lot of what you see alongside the talking heads is archive footage and this is deftly edited together with the recollections. Polley has also shot and directed some dramatisations of her parents life and these are woven in seamlessly, almost literally. It might be due to Polley’s brilliance or my failure to pay close attention but initially I didn’t realise it wasn’t all old Super 8. I’m sure it is a little of both and if I wasn’t tuning in to how the film was made that is down to the director too.
As the events of the story catch up with the present the documentary becomes as much about the making of the film and the telling of the story as it is about the story itself. I know technically there is no fourth wall in a documentary but it is like the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Blazing Saddles only real.
Stories We Tell is a very impressive piece of film making and like Senna before it takes the tired conventions of documentaries and uses them to do something unconventional.
There is one quiet shot in which Polley is seen moving her camera from her interview subject to her audience. It looks like an ordinary thing to do but in fact it is loaded with significance and that is the film in a nutshell.
Is this one for the kids?
If you can get your preteens to watch an intelligent, subtle and skilfully constructed doc like this then please tell me how
Bechdel Test Score = 3