In this inspired, genre-twisting new film, Oscar®-nominated writer/director Sarah Polley discovers that the truth depends on who’s telling it. Polley is both filmmaker and detective as she investigates the secrets kept by a family of storytellers. She playfully interviews and interrogates a cast of characters of varying reliability, eliciting refreshingly candid, yet mostly contradictory, answers to the same questions. As each relates their version of the family mythology, present-day recollections shift into nostalgia-tinged glimpses of their mother, who departed too soon, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Polley unravels the paradoxes to reveal the essence of family: always complicated, warmly messy and fiercely loving. Stories We Tell explores the elusive nature of truth and memory, but at its core is a deeply personal film about how our narratives shape and define us as individuals and families, all interconnecting to paint a profound, funny and poignant picture of the … Written by The National Film Board of Canada
I went to watch Stories We Tell because I have been intrigued by Sarah Polley for a while. I’ve loved her as an actress in My Life Without Me (by Isabel Coixet, a writer/director from my country that I’m also very interested in), and The Secret Life of Words (again by the same writer/director) and watched on with interest when she directed Away From Her, as touching and loving a movie about Alzheimer’s disease as you’re bound to see. When I read about Stories We Tell I knew I had to go and watch it, not only because she was directing it, and it was about her and her family (a documentary this time) but also because it was about family secrets, the nature of memory, and how we tell stories.
I went to the Sheffield Showroom, an independent cinema (part of the Europa Cinemas partnership) and can report I was alone in Screen One where it was showing. Yes, it was Sunday and a sunny day and people were out in the Peace gardens, children paddling in the water…I hope it had more viewers at other times, because it deserves them. But I must admit it made for an even more interesting experience, because if this is an intimate and small movie, a personal showing made it even more so.
The documentary got good reviews (and deservedly so) and it explores…I guess family dynamics. We all have family myths and stories that get repeated no matter what (according to my father I was born a very long and very thin baby, full of hair…I’ve worked hard to be thin, I’m not particularly long now and definitely not hairy…You’ll have to take my word for it), and become the ‘truth’ even when they might not stand up to scrutiny. There might be reasons why we live with those versions of events but I don’t think that many of us have investigated them, at least not as Sarah (again I’m taking liberties here) does. Not sure we’d dare.
The story discussed and the questions she asks go to the core of her identity. If we have all asked ourselves ‘where do I come from?’ in the majority of cases we’re not questioning our direct origins. We believe we know where we were born, and who our parents are (not everybody, of course). Although Sara’s family is not your standard one (her parents were both actors, her mother had been married before, divorced her first husband and was the first woman in Canada to lose custody of her children) certain roles seemed established. Her mother died when she was a child and the film is also an exploration of her mother, as Sarah was too young to have had the opportunity to ask her many questions. Who was this bubbly and talented woman, not afraid to chase after her dreams? What made her so attractive to so many people? Her father, Michael, brought her up and she has a good relationship with him and her siblings. So why was there a family rumour insisting that Michael was not her real father? And if he wasn’t, who was?
Sarah uses interviews/interrogations with those involved (family members, friends, some of her mother’s colleagues), has her ‘father’ Michael read his own account of the story, and recreates scenes from her mother’s and the family’s past, real materials and recreated memories based on diverse account, documents, family movies…
Some of the people interviewed feel they ‘own’ the story. Others are generous enough to just tell their version and let her/us do with it as we will. And all truly love Sarah and each other. Do they all understand what she is trying to achieve? No. Are they worried about it? They don’t seem to be.
Whatever else the movie does, I felt it allowed me into the heart of this family who are strong and close enough to let a camera in and not be worried about what those watching it might think. Family secrets cannot destroy you if you just let them out in the open and embrace them. Such a great lesson. I hope you watch it and enjoy it.
Thank you for reading. And if you’ve enjoyed it, don’t forget to watch, comment and share!
- Film Review: ‘Stories We Tell’ by Sarah Polley (cinemurmurs.wordpress.com)
- Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell – watch it here (guardian.co.uk)
- Film Review | Stories We Tell (thejournalist.ie)
- Sarah Polley: ‘Stories are our way of coping, of creating shape out of mess’ (guardian.co.uk)