“Stories We Tell” (2012)

Poster for STORIES WE TELL (2012)

Poster for STORIES WE TELL (2012) — image source: Film Jam

I first watched STORIES WE TELL (2012) shortly after it came out on DVD last year, before I started blogging about movies. When it popped up recently on Amazon Instant Video (where it is a Prime movie), it seemed like a no-brainer to decide to rewatch and write about it. This docudrama was made by actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley, who is well-known in her native Canada (as well as in the U.S.) for her acting career, her political activism, and her films about women. As her IMDB bio recounts, she was “deeply affected by the death of her mother Diane from cancer shortly after her 11th birthday.” STORIES WE TELL is, in part, the result of Polley’s attempt to understand the life and loves of her mother, Diane Polley, a well-known actress and casting director, as well as her own genesis.

The story grows out of Sarah’s questioning the true identity of her biological father, a curiosity that grew out of family jokes about this subject. As a director, she made the decision to interrogate the past through interviews with members and friends of the family, as well as with significant figures in the stage and film worlds of Toronto and Montreal. Through these interviews, she obtained multiple narratives of the same events, stories that often conflicted in both large and small details. Juxtaposed through skillful editing, the film presents a complex portrait of Diane’s life and relationships, as well as of her family.

The director, as a very young girl, with her mother

The director, as a very young girl, with her mother — image source: official film website

The editing of this film (done by Mike Munn) weaves contemporary interviews and other scenes (shot by DP Iris Ng) with archival family footage (mostly Super 8) to tell the multiple versions of the film’s major story. There are also several subplots, one of which combines reflections by the filmmaker and her family members on the nature and value of the film project itself. There is also Polley’s own attempt to come to terms with the narratives she has collected, a search for truth (or something close to the truth) that can fill the gap in her memory caused by the keeping of family secrets and the harboring of personal rivalries and grudges and, more simply, the inability to know what happened before she even existed.

Watching the movie for the second time gave me the opportunity to pay attention to these subplots. On the first viewing, I was caught up in the primary story and, distracted by the “red herrings” that the film provides, yearning to find out “whodunit.” Hopefully I have not spoiled too much of the film for those who have not seen it yet; STORIES WE TELL will not tell all until the very end — even the closing credits provide more insight into Polley’s filmmaking strategy and her family. A word of advice here: pay attention not only to the tragedies, regrets, and losses of the past, but also the victories, both small and large, that are documented from both the past and the present as a result of this film’s creation.