“When you’re 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 are powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace.
So begins Stories We Tell, a meditative, sentimental and intricate portrayal of childhood and parenting. This is Oscar-nominated writer/director Sarah Polley’s first documentary feature, and the film’s stars are in fact her parents: retired British actor Michael Polley, who narrates the film from a vocal booth, and her effervescent performer mother Diane, who died of cancer when Sarah was just 11 years old.
Diane is the principal star of the show, represented through the talking heads’ recollections as well as widow husband Michael’s fantastic Super 8 footage that he took throughout their lives. As director, Polley handily rearranges the recovered films and overlays the images on top of the audio. The grainy, amateur look is not merely a gimmick – it’s thoroughly transfixing and makes you want to rush out and find an old camera right away.
Both Polley’s parents were actors in some form and met each other in the theatre. Chatting about his lead roles as angry young men in Pinter plays, Michael suggests – in an adorably self-deprecating way – that Diane probably fell in love with one of his characters; in real life, he was far from rebellious, a quiet man who liked his solitude. During their marriage, Diane and Michael would twice act together and have four children. However it is when they’re expecting their fifth child that Stories We Tell takes its dramatic turn towards Sarah’s discovery about her paternity and then Diane’s cancer.
Stories We Tell uses the Polleys’ personal family history as a jumping off point for a discussion of what it means to tell stories, and how, years later, our recollection of an event could widely differ from that of our siblings. Polley intertwines interviews with a range of people who all tell their stories with slightly different details. The rather brilliant and even profound thing about this documentary is that it effortlessly lays out how important family and friends are. It never preaches or becomes cloying, but its message is clear: families are well worth the hassle.
It’s also interesting how Polley experiments with her form. The film exhibits footage of her setting up for the interviews with her family and is not afraid to use takes that some filmmakers might ruthlessly cut out. Her father Michael narrates most of the film from a recording studio with his own script of the events. However, Polley also sets up cameras in the vocal booth and has one pointed at her as she sits at the sound deck. Sometimes she rocks back and forth as the narrative reaches a particularly emotional crescendo. We see footage of her asking Michael to re-read or “take back” lines that she thinks could be delivered better, as well as off-the-cuff questions that lead Michael to exclaim: “What a vicious director you are.”
As the film draws to a close you realise that a lot of the “found” Super 8 footage was in fact done by Polley with actors who looked similar to her parents. Some may find this disingenuous – or perhaps that it takes something away from the project as a whole – but what’s for sure is that it adds another layer of story to the documentary, giving Polley the chance to construct what her memory allows her.
Although at 109 minutes the film is a little too long, Stories We Tell is an intriguing family documentary with the warmest of hearts.
Stories We Tell is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 23 September 2013