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February 1, 2018

Stories We Tell

by Franz Patrick


Stories We Tell (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Michael and Diane Polley have been married for a decade until that “one thing that happened” in Montreal 1978. Upon Diane’s death due to cancer, when writer-director Sarah Polley was eleven years of age, the dynamics of their family changed. Since then a woman full of exuberance and vitality became an increasingly distant memory.

And so “Stories We Tell” is kicked to full gear as it explores the depth and fallibility of memory. What makes the documentary compelling is that there are three groups of storytellers instead of only one. First and most obvious are the people being interviewed in front of the camera: Polley’s father and siblings; Diane’s close friends; and those who knew Diane as an actress. A second layer involves Polley’s father reading from his book directly. It contains his version of the events as well as his thoughts about them. There is a difference between a person reading off a book and that same person being interviewed: the former situation makes room for further processing when it comes what should make it onto the page while the latter is less filtered. The small differences are worth looking into.

The third and most difficult to explore is the director herself. Though she is—or should be—in control from behind the camera, objective, she remains close to the subject because she has a critical role in the stories—no matter which version is exorcised. After all, the person being talked about is her mother: what people think of her, what they believe she has done, and what she left behind. I can only imagine losing a parent at such a young age.

Despite what might be an uncomfortable subject matter, there is a level of ease in the people being interviewed that I enjoyed. It is almost as if they are talking to Polley, their sibling or daughter, rather than a stranger. At times we get a sense that they forget the unblinking camera is standing right there. It works for the picture because it makes us wonder about their level of honesty and whether they would have chosen to reveal so much if someone they did not know as well is calling the shots or asking questions. Sure, not one person is one hundred percent reliable in the first place but since the people being interviewed are aware that someone they know is at the helm, it creates a feeling that the material being told is all the more personal.

The film takes on various twists and they can easily be missed by those who do not pay close attention. The subtle approach to the revelations reflects how tenuous the so-called truth really is. As the film draws to a close, it encourages us to ask questions. There is what exactly happened, which is near impossible to make out being the woman in the center has long been gone, what the interviewees think happened, and what what we think happened given the limited information that have been provided to us.

Peeling away at the family secrets is, in a sense, also about us as third party observers. Which version of truth do we believe? The director’s? Diane’s husband’s? The home videos’? What we feel in our gut? I believe the message is that we are all storytellers. It is not so much about agreement or disagreement when it comes to the facts or claims than it is about our attempt, as human beings who have the need to know and preserve, to clutch desperately at the events that have been and are being carried away by time.

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