When I hear the word documentary, I think of interviews and voice-overs that all have to do with a certain subject. Usually, the mind will navigate and first consider a documentary a boring video with people talking. If you pay more attention, you will usually learn more about the subject matter at hand. Usually, a Documentary follows the style of interviews, images, statistics and voice-overs. Usually, a Documentary will try to connect to you through an impersonal story or outrageous statistics. This time around, Stories We Tell dared to break away from the classic Documentary style filming and story and instead, decided to tell a story about a family from many different points of view.
Sarah Polley, our films narrator and lead character, has a very unique and interesting story behind her childhood. She grew up with two brothers and sisters and a mother and a father. Her parents met after her mother watched her father in a play and from that moment after the curtain had closed, the two fell in love. At least, that’s one side of the story. Another story would say that Diane Polley fell madly in love with Michael Polley’s charismatic and exciting character, but didn’t fall in love with the real Michael. Michael Polley himself would describe himself as uninteresting and nowhere near as funny as his wife. These are just three different points of view. We get many more on the relationship of Michael and Diane from Sarah’s siblings, relatives and friends of Diane.
Diane Polley died of cancer in the middle of her life and left Michael and Sarah alone. At that point in time, Sarah’s siblings had moved out of the house and were starting a new life. Sarah and Michael bonded over their time spent alone and formed a relationship that neither would ever forget or take for granted. Michael, whom narrates the film from his memoirs, describes his relationship with Sarah ever since she was a young girl. He remembers his other children teasing her for looking nothing like their mom and dad and he played along with it. It was a running family joke and everyone found it funny. Everyone, except for Sarah, who noticed that she didn’t look like her father.
Diane Polley went to Toronto for a play that she was offered and she spent two months there during the production. During that time, Michael only visited her once and was otherwise only told how things were going. As Sarah looks back on this time, she questions why she looked so differently from the rest of her family. As she talks with her siblings and father, she asks for their story about the marriage between their parents. All of them each tell a similar story, but with key differences and interpretations that help piece a mystery together. Was their fun-loving and energetic mother unhappy with their dull and serious father? Did their mother really love their father? What happened when their mother was in Toronto? All of these questions arise and the cast all handles them very differently.
As Sarah progresses with her questions and interviews, she begins to open up about herself and her fear that she may not be Michael’s daughter. She never expressed the fear to anyone and decided to handle it on her own. She spent years interrogating friends of her mothers and anyone who knew her mother. Sarah had to know if there was some way that she wasn’t related to Michael Polley. As we hear more of her concerns, her siblings and family weigh in on the issue and even more information is revealed. Sarah’s own story connects with her mother’s and the two manage to intertwine very well. The discoveries, lack of discoveries, stories, truths, lies and information that come from these interviews all tell a wonderful story that you will be immediately drawn to.
The way that Sarah Polley went about this film is a way that I hadn’t yet seen before. She has her father narrate his story of how they all got to where they are, as the film is playing out. She also switches between filming with a digital camera and using Super 8 reels. She recreates events that happened in the past with her cast in full makeup and it is really convincing. Upon first viewing, I thought that the footage was from an archive. The interviews themselves are unorthodox, as Sarah asks for everyone’s stories and how they interpreted certain events. While hints of a standard Documentary lay within the film, Sarah Polley does a phenomenal job of breaking from the normal and creating a new and exciting way to film a Documentary.
When I first read the synopsis for this film, I shrugged it off and moved on. I didn’t think that a bunch of family stories would prove to make a good film. Looking back now, I am really mad at myself, because this is one incredible story. This film is very personal to the Polley family, yet the openly discuss their family secrets and stories like it’s nothing. They represent every family out there. We all have our own versions of stories within our families. Some are more interesting and unique than others, while some are deemed typical and lame. After viewing this film, I’m willing to believe that every person in every family has an outstanding story that is waiting to be told.
Within the interviews, we get a lot of laughs and a lot of tears. These stories are personal, so we as the audience can’t relate to everything. We can’t understand an inside joke, but seeing siblings and family laugh together is a beautiful thing. It’s also beautiful and saddening to see a family cry together. This film pulls at so many of your emotions and it does that well. There were some moments in the film that seemed to go on for a bit too long and it took me out of the story for a bit. It also takes some time to get invested in this families story, but once you do, you’ll be immersed in their versions of their crazy and peculiar family. Stories We Tell is truly an incredible film for all the boundaries it breaks within its genre and its’ ability to interest you in a story about a family you’ve never met. To me, no story is boring. It’s how you tell the story, that makes it interesting.
Stories We Tell Trailer