Stories We Tell
There are many levels to director and actress Sarah Polley’s new documentary, “Stories We Tell.” In fact, now, having seen the film, I think that its trailer, while certainly intriguing, tells more than it should (as do most trailers these days). I recommend going in cold to see this compelling documentary, playing locally at Angelika Film Center (18 west Houston Street). Now having said this, my challenge is to convey my thoughts and feelings about “Stories We Tell” without giving away more than I should about the film.
“Every family has a story. This one thing that happened.” This quote from early on in “Stories We Tell” sets in motion a story about Polley’s parents. Her mother, Diane, who died when Polley was 11, was larger than life and full of fun. She fell in love with Sarah’s father, Michael, not so much with the man himself, but with a character he portrayed in a play in which the two of them performed. The mother and father were very different people, as Sarah’s father, Michael, frankly recounts. From there the story is launched and flies off at a trajectory somewhere between melodrama and thriller.
“Stories We Tell” is a story told through interviews with family members and friends, all of whom have stories. The story, or stories, are nicely augmented with photographs and home movies. Editor Mike Munn has done a nice job of balancing the present with the past while illustrating that which the modern day story-tellers are saying, with strategic use of home movie footage and stills (some of which are themselves re-creations). “Stories We Tell” is about siblings, fathers and daughters, writers, husbands, wives, and parents.
It is very interesting that I should see “Stories We Tell” after just having taught “Sociology 101” at Queens College. The film, from a sociological point of view, is about the social institution of the family. Any social institution – religion, school, family – has values and norms. One of the things a social institution does is to preserve order when a norm or value has been violated. It is fascinating that, in the process of investigating something that happened in her family, Polley brings a sense of disorder to her relatives by the very act of making this film, a film in which she investigates actions that were taken, years before, to actually preserve the order of her family.
Another fascinating element included in “Stories we Tell,” and one with which my students and I struggle in another course that I teach, “Mass Communication and Popular Culture,” is the nature of “truth.” This is particularly important when discussing documentaries. In fact, at one point, Polley and her father, Michael, a writer who has written about the same event about which Polley is making the very film we are watching, discuss the nature of truth. The discussion revolves around what Polley chooses to put in her film and, just as important, what she chooses to leave out and how her decisions effect the story’s verisimilitude.
“Stories We Tell,” is a thoughtful story about the quest for love, memories and a filmmaker trying to sift through it all, seeking to arrive at that that which is genuine.
Stories We Tell, Director Sarah Polley, 2013, Roadside Attractions, 108 minutes, rated PG-13