Its intrigue and intimacy make for a story worth telling

Following 2012’s mawkish love triangle movie Take This Waltz, Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley steers away from fiction altogether and steps into the treacherous world of documentary with Stories We Tell. Released as part of the DOXBIO 2013 programme, it’s a biographical essay film, tackling the unspoken truths and lies that have engrossed the 34-year-old’s life. It could have been yet another forlorn, syrupy mess, but turns out to be one of the most intriguing and poignant films of the year thus far.

“Why would anyone want to know our story?” This frank statement from Polley’s older sister Susy permeates the film’s opening prologue, as we get a snapshot of a liberal, middle class white family from Toronto, Canada. So far, so normal, but this astute young filmmaker buries herself in the family’s history to unleash a story of great mystery and intrigue. Those revelations are probably best left unsaid here. Suffice to say, the many twists and turns of Stories We Tell left me picking up my jaw from the floor, fluttering between being astonished, mournful or in fits of laughter throughout the near two-hour running time.

Comprised of archival home video footage and extensive ‘interrogations’ with her family and friends, Polley sets out to paint a portrait of her mother Diane, an exuberant would-be starlet who passed away in 1990, when Sarah was eleven years old. To build up the story, Polley’s reclusive father Michael, a former actor himself, candidly narrates the whole film through a recital of his fantastic biographical prose, detailing the intricacies of his professional and romantic relationship with Diane. The effect is both haunting and emotional, removing a subjective barrier that is so often prevalent in documentary filmmaking, and giving us a direct homage to a remarkable woman.

Perhaps more surprising than the small story revelations is Polley’s deft ability to make them cinematically enthralling. It’s a far cry from a nuts and bolts thriller, yet there are many moments in Stories We Tell where you could cut the tension with a knife. The air of trepidation starts with the pensive documentary subjects; particularly the host of friendly siblings who are worried that divulging their ephemeral memories of Diane will change the public’s perception of her. Ultimately, this fear ends up in the hands of Polley herself, and her longing to reveal the family skeletons in the closet.

This alone would make this curious little film a riveting watch, but Polley goes a step further to engage our interest in her personal pursuit for the truth. Circling around the idea of malleable memories and hidden meanings, she ignites the audience’s curiosity, and we start to consider our own family secrets and who can really claim ownership of a story or memory.

Stories We Tell doesn’t necessarily fall into a succinct beginning, middle and end structure. Then again, however, as the film reminds us, neither does life. Despite a few meandering moments and an overzealous use of archival footage, the film never feels indulgent or sickeningly sweet. In fact, it’s entirely absorbing and an achievement that Polley has created such an intriguing personal essay film that not only manages to eulogise her upbringing, mother and family altogether, but brings the audience along for the ride. After a protractedly rousing finish and the humorous credits come to a close, you’ll walk out of the cinema believing that Polley could be one of the most exciting young filmmakers of a generation – not only because the story she’s just divulged was so absorbing, but because it leaves you questioning the lies, hidden truths and stories told by the people who surround us.

Stories We Tell (15)

Dir: Sarah Polley; Can doc, 2013, 108 mins
Premiered April 4
Playing at Empire Bio, Dagmar and Vester Vov Vov

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