Written and Directed by Sarah Polley
Michael Polley: When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all. It’s a confusion.
It isn’t often that I feel the need to give a spoiler warning before discussing a documentary, but I feel there is no real way to discuss Sarah Polley’s latest (and dare I say, greatest) film, STORIES WE TELL, without giving away the story itself. Polley decides to turn the camera inward, or as close to inward as is physically possible when you’re still the one directing the film from behind the camera. In doing so, not only does she somehow avoid veering into the hyper-egotistical terrain the subject matter could very easily provide, but she also creates a beautiful film that explores perspective and how it shapes all of our lives. This is the work of a very brave filmmaker.
Polley is very guarded with her information at the onset of STORIES WE TELL, and when you find out why, it only stands to reason. It isn’t quite clear what she’s trying to show us at first but, little by little, and rather organically I might add, the film’s structure takes shape. Polley is interviewing her siblings, or rather interrogating, as she puts it, and filming her father, Michael Polley, as he reads a story he wrote that involves his daughter. It is the story of Polley’s youth, of her parents’ relationship, and of their difficulties. More specifically though, and this is the spoiler part, it becomes clear at one point that this is the story of how Sarah was conceived out of wedlock.
By having everyone directly and indirectly involved in the story, including her actual birth father, whom I will let the film reveal to you in its own time, Polley is able to piece together a story from so many different sources. As if to acknowledge that she knows that there is no true way to get the real details of this story (as her mother died when Polley was 11), she cuts away to archival family footage of the period her mother would have had her affair, only to later reveal that this footage is staged with actors playing the parts of her parents. Add to this the inevitable filtering Polley has over the overall telling of this story as she sits in the editing room, and you have a crafty and discerning exploration of the art of storytelling itself. The true beauty of STORIES WE TELL though isn’t the scandal or even the insight; no, what resonates most of all is to see the Polley family still together after surviving what most certainly was a difficult page in their history.