June 5, 2013

Review: Sarah Polley on the 'Stories We Tell' Ourselves

Canadian actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley continues to show her skill and talent as a storyteller beyond being a writer or director but also as a daughter, sister, and documentarian. Stories We Tell is an unconventional narrative documentary about Polley's own family, their secrets, and how the family itself tells its own stories. Every family has its secrets and the lies they tell each other.

In the film, Polley interviews all her surviving family members about one particular family secret. She has learned her father actor Michael Polley isn't, in fact, her biological father. Her mother actress Diane Polley (who died of cancer when Sarah was eleven and serves as the central figure of the film) had an extramarital affair with film producer Harry Gulkin resulting in her conception. Her true paternity was kept a secret for nearly thirty years.

Stories We Tell is not only a documentation of her family but an examination of how we tell stories and construct our narrative realities of memories. Polley asks her interviewees and subjects to tell the whole story in their own words as if nobody knows the story. Every person tells a starkly different tale, contradicting each other and building very different histories of their family.

As the director, Polley brilliantly breaks down the narrative elements of characters telling a story, their relationships with other characters, motives, and how they affect a story. She balances conflicting narratives and portrayals of events while expressing the medium of her own storytelling. Interviewees comment on the film itself and how it will be edited and structured to tell the truth.

Its meta-narrative is so revealing and grossly fascinating. Polley is not only the viewer, the interviewer, the subject, but the storyteller all at once as are most of her subjects to varying degrees. By the end, she breaks every wall, appearing on camera, in conversation with making-of footage of not only interviews but dramatizations, and overall filmmaking elements of exactly how she decided to tell the story we're watching.

Polley as a filmmaker really shows how interesting and fluid her complex storytelling methods really are. It's impossible to take this documentary in without comparing it to her first two fictional narrative films. Both Away from Her and Take this Waltz are about marriage, family, fidelity, and telling stories about complicated human relationships, emotions, and how they affect the ones we love. They are told from the point of view of both happy and sad marriages through old age, youth, Alzheimer's disease, and infidelity. The parallels and echoes inform how she sees complicated relationships and memories are.

Stories We Tell is a complex narrative work as Polley shows an "astonishing emotional depth and technical maturity" as a filmmaker. At its essence, the film reveals how people construct stories, develop characters (in this case, real people), and create interesting narratives through personal history and memories. It's a thoughtful, moving family portrait of compelling drama, and a love letter to her mother and father (both of them).

In Canada, Stories We Tell is available online, via iTunes, and on video on demand.

More | YVArcade / Sound on Sight

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