REVIEW: Stories We Tell

18 08 2013

Last semester, I took a course that had me write a paper using my family as the evidence to explore sociological themes.  A requirement of this essay was to conduct ethnographic research myself – that is, interview four members of my family.  From just those brief sessions, I learned plenty about my own family history.

But perhaps the biggest lesson I took away from that project was that every person had their own way of describing the same person, thing, or event.  Moreover, what was included and excluded from someone’s narrative was a story in and of itself.  While it was not related to the focus of my paper at all, the research got me fascinated about the way that we filter history through the lens of our own experiences.

A few months later, I was sitting in a dark room watching Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” and a silent prayer was answered.  This documentary is an ethnography project, handbook, and critique all tied up in one immensely satisfying bundle.  It addressed all the lingering questions from my project – and then went a step further by brining to light many more intelligent issues that continue to bounce around in my head.

Have no worry, you don’t need to have completed an academic exercise in ethnography (the study of people) to get something out of “Stories We Tell.”  It’s a film for anyone who has ever told their own story or been told their history by someone else.  Polley’s documentary may be about her own family, but its sharp insights penetrate so deeply into the human condition that her findings apply to just about anyone.

Stories We Tell

Polley’s film began not unlike my favorite film of 2012, Lauren Greenfield’s superb documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” with a genius accident.  She had long been curious about her mother, Diane, who died when she was young.  Beginning by interviewing the man who raised her, Michael Polley, her siblings, and her mother’s friends, Sarah Polley crafts a portrait of Diane.

It’s a sketch full of various contradictions, accurately reflecting the vagaries of the memory.  Diane is impossible to pin down because, after all, she exists only in the minds of those who knew her.  What they have chosen to remember and forget is, in some sense, all that remains of her.  (That’s a somewhat frightening proposition, so don’t spend too much time lingering on it or you’ll have an existential crisis.)  Polley’s editing juxtaposes interesting perspectives, some that agree and others that clash.

Yet as she begins searching for answers, hidden truths begin to surface.  Sarah was often teased growing up that Michael was not her biological father, but these remarks were never given much weight.  However, person after person kept suggesting that she and Michael looked nothing alike.   On top of that, Diane could easily have had an affair around the time of Sarah’s conception.  With that much rumor and hearsay floating around, Sarah simply had to find the truth.

What Polley uncovers about her past completely reroutes her future.  It’s not lost on Polley that some truths her mother could never tell her in life were only brought to light by the hole left by her death.  Ultimately, she created “Stories We Tell” not only as the story of Diane’s life but also as the measurement of that life’s ripple effect.

Polley’s narrative about her mother and the search for her real father is the stuff of tense, gripping family drama.  While it’s always engaging, the story is fairly easy to shake off as a project meant mainly the Polley family reunion in 2013.  But Sarah Polley wisely realizes that the making of “Stories We Tell” is an important part of her story, and the third act of her documentary is devoted to showing the film’s strings to the viewer.  We get to see what “Stories We Tell” really means for her and, in the process, what it means for us.  Polley even goes so far as to question the validity and necessity of the movie in the first place, a maneuver that pays off in spades.

Have no doubt about it, “Stories We Tell” is an important movie for everyone.  It illuminates fascinating portions of the human condition by looking at how we narrativize and thematize our lives.  Perhaps clearer than ever, Polley shows how truly complicated the past really is.  We so often confuse memory with reality and story with truth, blurring the lines until it becomes an indistinguishable mess.  But in a courageous act of filmmaking, Sarah Polley attempts to set all these things straight.  The process is extremely rewarding for her, and its keen recapitulation in “Stories We Tell” is sure to enrich the life of anyone who watches her journey.  A-3halfstars

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