Family Viewing

Stories We Tell
(Canada, 108 min.)
Written and directed by Sarah Polley
Featuring: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley, Harry Gulkin.
“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

-Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Do I ever have a story to tell you. This story is about filmmaker Sarah Polley, who is no stranger to the awkward messiness of love. Her feature debut, Away from Her, saw some slips in memory between lifelong partners Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) result in a necessary infidelity. Polley’s sophomore feature, Take This Waltz, then saw the conflicted Margot (Michelle Williams) make a difficult choice between the life she had and the life she wanted. Polley’s third feature, Stories We Tell, echoes her previous works by embracing the slips and tangles of love and memory. After telling the stories of Grant and Fiona and of Margot and Lou, Polley puts her own life within the frame of the viewfinder and turns the camera intimately inward as she examines more characters caught in the endless messiness of life and love. This excellent meta-documentary is arguably Polley’s most ambitious and most accomplished work yet – Stories We Tell might very well be the best Canadian film since our Oscar winner The Barbarian Invasions.

Stories We Tell excels as a feat of storytelling by taking an approach to film form much as Margaret Atwood does to literature. Like Atwood, Polley takes a page of history and writes it into a story. The abovementioned quote from Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace, which opens the film, reveals the fleeting elusiveness of history: facts become muddled in the mind; memories are morphed, shaped, and redacted as best suits the person doing the remembering. In the act of telling the story, however, a narrative is formed, so a story only really exists when it’s shared with someone else.

Polley shapes a story through a brave game of show and tell. She assembles her family and friends, and she has them all recount the same tale. It’s the story of Sarah’s mother, Diane, a vibrant woman whom the interviewees describe as having a rich, infectious laugh and a hearty lust for life that often masked a sense of resignation or disappointment. The Polley family’s love for their mother—of whom Sarah looks the spitting image—is readily apparent in the jovial remembrances and snippets of home movies that comprise the film. Especially persuasive in creating a portrait of Diane is the narration voiced by her husband, Michael.

Polley begins the film with her father. She walks him into the recording studio and hands him the script. As she sits and listens to her father, talking notes and reacting to his scripted memories, Stories We Tell comes together like the powerful whirlwind of Grace’s mind.

The fond memories of Diane gradually take a turn much like the sunny summer colours of Take This Waltz. Polley’s friends and family then describe openly to the camera a woman like Margot who saw a chance to escape her life and chose to take it. The stories told by the subjects relive these years matter-of-factly. Especially surprising in the unfolding of the Polley family drama is the position that Michael takes as he reflects upon his wife’s life: rather than look back in anger, Polley’s father looks at the camera and observes candidly, “This is a great story.”
Stories We Tell is thus a film that observes frequently its own role in the storytelling process. Culling together an artful, almost experimental collage of truth and fiction, Sarah Polley and editor Mike Munn extend the chronicles of the Polley family into an intelligent meditation of the story-making process as a whole. Appropriating the form of documentary into its own introspectiveness, Stories We Tell confronts the murky subjectivity of truth and asks at what point history ends and stories begin.

Polley plays with the puzzle of her mother’s history by piecing together a game of broken telephone. By uniting all the parties of the story, however central or tangential their role might be, Polley creates a master tale that exists solely thanks to the parts that comprise the whole. Polley once again shows that the filmmaking process enjoys its most universal reach when the scope and story is small and intimate. Films don’t get much more personal than Stories We Tell, yet by sticking the knife into herself and letting viewers watch as the various talking heads twist it about in various ways, Polley shows that the most personal of stories is, in fact, universal. Few viewers can probably relate to the circumstances of Polley’s family, but the filmmaker shows that every story becomes collective through the mere act of sharing it. Once one person knows the story—or, better yet, thinks he or she know the story—that person then makes a story of his/her own as they tweak it a little or just accept their faulty logic.

The logic passes on from the subjects on the screen to the viewers in their seats. It’s easy to settle in to the sense of camaraderie of Stories We Tell and to appropriate this experiment in family nostalgia. Immersed in the emotion of it all, viewers are sure to see some part of their own family histories creep into the secrets of the Polley family. Like the home movies we watch or the old photographs we keep, the stories we share keep the best memories of our family alive. They don’t bury the bad ones, but they shape them into a learning experience that’s passed from one generation to the next. The scope of Stories We Tell is small and intimate, but its reach is universal: it’s one family’s story, but it’s now your story, too. 

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

Stories We Tell is playing in theatres across Canada.
It screens in Ottawa at The Bytowne until Nov. 2nd and plays at The Mayfair (Bank) starting Nov. 30th.

*All photos courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada