By Bertille de Lestrade
Best known for an acting career started early in Canada and promising debut as a writer/director (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), Sarah Polley comes back with Stories We Tell, a documentary in which she dissects her own family’s memories. In a clever, tactful investigation of her parents’ love life, Polley attempts to reconstruct the past and unveil everyone’s truth by interviewing her relatives and a a few close friends. Stories We Tell is never boring, always remarkably candid, and a truly original piece of multiple narration.
« Can you tell me the whole story ? » Polley playfully asks each of her story tellers at the beginning of the documentary. Something strikes you immediately: in the comfort of their kitchens, living-rooms, studies and gardens, these people are simply going to be honest. That’s the whole point, really, not because they’re being filmed, but because they clearly care a great deal about the girl behind the camera : as Sarah, the daughter, the little sister interrogates them in her youthful yet surprisingly firm voice, you get a real sense of their bond, their desire to guide her through times she wasn’t there to know or understand. Her parents, actors Diane and Michael Polley, got married in the 60’s in Toronto. They had three children, last of which was Sarah, born in 1979. After her mother died of cancer in 1990 and her older siblings quickly left the nest, Sarah lived alone with her father for many years, which are described as a very happy time by her father Michael.
If quite ordinary on paper, this family story holds a good amount of sparks and surprising developments, especially if you’re not familiar with the Polleys who are most well known in Canada. As the startpoint of the film and core of the family, Diane makes for a captivating character, well described by her loved ones and brought back to life through Super 8 footage, some of which, I naively realized quite late, are actually faux and feature actors : an artistic achievement for sure, as they recreate the 70’s beautifully and give the story an essential visual texture. Diane the mother then, the wife, the woman. Her personality, her mind and soul, her marriages, her despair, her children from a previous union and the ones she had with Michael, particularly the late-born Sarah. Sarah who now wants to reconstruct her mother gone too early as you would a puzzle, with pieces made of voices and anecdotes, questions and raw emotions, photos and e-mails. From a not-so-innocent family joke, the story will move to a life-changing interrogation involving those who are still very much alive, some hiding in the shadow of past intimacy.
Through a double narration (a traditionnal interview combined to the reading of his own text recorded in a studio under Sarah’s supervision), Michael Polley stands out to be the main teller of this complex story and its many aspects. Following Sarah’s wishes, everyone equally gets to tell their own truth and, as Michael notes, if each of them had edited her footage their own way, the results would be significantly different.
Editing really is choosing, and whether or not it was intended, it seemed to me that Sarah somehow chose her father, giving him the microphone, the main voice, gently putting him in the spotlight instead of herself or others who admittely felt more deserving of it. The depiction of this love, this oh so rich father-daughter relationship is what I found most subtle and moving about Polley’s work, and it goes hand in hand with her admirable modesty, an incredible lack of self-involvement that makes her neither weak nor dull but a rare artist and an intelligent director. Working with your own family as material, if certainly therapeutic, can only be too tricky and for some, nerve-wracking. I have nothing against « quest of identity » films when they’re well made, on the contrary, but Sarah Polley seems to know who she is already and it allowed her to focus on a innovative style and a clever reflection as she unfolded her family story. How refreshing and inspiring.
Among the many story tellers, Polley created a very special and comfortable space for her brothers ans sisters to speak : without ever falling into any tacky trap, she brilliantly spread their words and silences through the documentary. These interviews are as funny as they are touching, they hold genuine spontaneity, tenderness and a good dose of family teasing many of us can relate to.
This heartwarming honesty, the human glue that puts Stories We Tell together, is what makes it so brave, uncompromising, and Sarah Polley a very singular writer/director you really want to keep an eye on.
Stories We Tell is coming to the IFI on June 28th!