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Nov 15, 2014

Review: STORIES WE TELL (2013)

            Rebecca Jenkins, Claire Walker, Alex Hatz, Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Susy Buchan, John Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley, Cathy Gulkin, Marie Murphy, Robert MacMillan, Anne Tait, Deirdre Bowen, Victoria Mitchell, Mort Ransen, Geoffrey Bowes, Tom Butler, Pixie Bigelow and Peter Evans

                    Sarah Polley

                  The Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley has emerged with her previous films as somebody to watch out for. As an actress, she has starred in some prominent films but her directorial career has been the most striking and appreciable. With indie dramas like "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz", Polley has emerged as a filmmaker with a distinct way of incorporating stories with cinematic conventions. Those films also represent some of the autobiographical aspects as well, which are confirmed in this latest masterpiece. It is not too hard to think why she made those films or why her fascination with films about couples breaking apart either by a physical condition or emotional disconnect. Her strong debut feature was about a woman slowly loosing her grasp on the reality around her due to Alzheimer's, as well as loosing memory of her own marriage. Giving a fascinating performance in that film was Julie Christie. On the other hand, her sophomore effort was more cinematic ally striking and eccentric storytelling about a woman played by Michelle Williams (another commendable performance), who ends up having an affair. A happily married couple suddenly torn apart by their personal discomforts and boredom within the relationship. Sarah Polley was just 11 when her mother died, adding to that is the important personal revelation which inspired her to make this film and you get a sense. A strong filmmaker with strong stories to tell.

                  Stories We Tell is a 2013 documentary that is written and directed by Sarah Polley. It explores the family secrets as well as the most intimate one that is at the center of it all, something to do with Polley's own identity. It features interviews by family members, relatives and family friends. This documentary also uses Super 8 footage which are re-enacted historical events of the family, giving a very home movies look to them. The film features narrations by Sarah Polley as well as her father Michael Polley. Premiered at Venice Film Festival two years ago and then winning great critical acclaim and several awards the year after, this documentary became an instant must watch for its intriguing concept. It is a shame that the Academy did not nominate this film, a real shame. There were some very conceptually exciting documentaries released last year that I just couldn't avoid. I have not seen many documentaries in my life, something I would like to change in the future thanks to efforts like these. It is always very hard for me to talk about a film without giving away what it is actually about. Considering my blog isn't a world-renowned website, my readers just my film buff friends, I don't feel hesitation in talking about a film in detail. If you still haven't seen this film, avoid the next paragraphs.

                  The personal secret of Sarah Polley being that she was actually a result of an extramarital affair. This was something she suspected due to how different she found herself from her siblings, played mostly as a joke within her family and then later confirmed. Polley decided to make a film, a memoir of sorts looking back at the family she grew up with. But she avoids giving a linear, simple and typical narration. Instead opting for family interviews that each present their versions of the stories and memories they have grown up with. Within all this, Polley herself steps back and just uses the medium of cinema and non-fiction storytelling as her source for meditating on the history and memory itself as well as exploring the concept of 'stories' that we all tell ourselves. The stories we grow up with, our personal versions of accounts that may vary depending on how they have impacted us in the long run. What begins as a simple account of getting to know these people leaves us with so much to ponder on. Why should we be interested in what Polley has to show and tell about her family? Because facts never remains just facts, accounts differ and everyone has a different and particular spin on things. I was taken away by the power of this documentary, the layering of all these accounts and how engaged I found myself. So unpredictable and truly suspenseful. This film makes you look back at your own stories and memories, it makes you think about your own life and how the specific moments have impacted you. A deeply moving portrait that initially may look very detective/explanatory/expository in nature but turns out to be revelatory and complex weaving of so many things. You discover a whole new world within the world. Polley wasn't just interested in telling the facts but exploring more. How they have affected people around her as much as the facts have literally changed her view on the life she lived? How much she can take away from accounts of her siblings and relatives? Polley herself seems to be evaluating and observing as the interviews are done, being a filmmaker she tries to restrict herself from becoming a part of the film itself. Even then, you can see how she reacts to some of the revelations through her voice or facial expressions.

                  In Stories We Tell, what keeps family together and apart for that matter is what they tell themselves or what they have to tell about them. How much an event impacts and effects a person differently, how people evolve into something much more over time and thus the realities for them keeps on changing. It is a compelling study that keeps you hooked and dramatically compelled. The revelations make you think, you feel like a part of this thought process of sorts that Polley herself is doing through this film. There is so much that each interviewer brings to the table, elaborate constructs and specific expressions. And that is without feeling too overwhelmed since it is never heady or too much to take. Shocking considering us viewers don't know the family or each one of those interviewers, we aren't familiar with them or their life. Polley's love and passion for the people in her life is clear. Her father that she grew up with and called her own, still so close to him and nothing have changed. On the other hand there is her biological father with whom she have grown closer to as well over time and got to know him more with peculiar interest that has never undermined her life up until that point for her. The film looks back at the mother, like a towering personality, a profound figure. I loved the grainy looking home videos and the re-constructed images. Their beautiful usage in the film at specific points, juxtaposed to such strong, emotional as well as funny accounts. From Diane's career to her marriage, her family life with the kids, husband and everyone else. The moment that led to the affair, her slowly deteriorating health as well as the strains in her marital life. Each of Polley's siblings or friends have such wonderful things to say about them. The interest just keeps on building, there is never a dull moment despite the nature of this film. You are enthralled by how this concept has worked as well as turned into something so much more.

                  The most mysterious aspect of this film is how much we don't really know a person despite spending an entire life with them. Despite the life we all share, we never truly know others. We think we do but we don't. The term 'putting yourself in other's shoe' is a phrase that I think of. Inviting others to see a particular situation through their eyes. When you can't grasp the severity of a situation, you find yourself startled by how much it makes sense once realized by another person. What is also so fascinating and ultimately the reason why Stories We Tell turns out as a mighty strong film is the balance Polley finds between the various aspects of the film. Where she wants to stop the interviewing part and cut to her making the film, or being with her family just like she normally would. Cutting back to the historical footage and then revealing something more, cut to a contradictory remark by a specific family member, confirmed or denied by others. She knows when to stop, pull back and continue. Seldom has a recent filmmaker used cinema with such assurance of what they want to achieve and construct. What is at the heart of it, so basic and organic as well as personal, turns out to be an utterly transformative experience. The tenderness that one feels or the varied range of comfort that the stories arises within us are so special. There was a point when I broke down, it was all too emotional. The power of storytelling and cinema reaches its apex with that ending, one that leaves us startled. There is no hint of vanity to be found in Stories We Tell, this is not a pretentious film. One of the very best masterpieces of 2013 is a complex, thought-provoking and astonishingly compelling study of the nature of truth and memories. How a documentary about a specific family and its secrets turns out to be so universal is greatness on part of Sarah Polley. She has created a wonderful film on the need of narratives in our lives. What binds us humans together isn't that we live in the same planet or country or region, that we may belong to a single family or follows specific traditions. What binds and brings us together is how despite living the same life, we still live so many lives. The very idea of it leaves one puzzled. That is why people interest me more than anything else in films. Stories interests me, stories we tell to each other and ourselves.

Grade: A