Sarah Polley has an interesting career. Starting out in front of the camera, she has starred in a number of television shows and films before transitioning behind the camera as a director. Now with three films under her belt, her small body of work can begin to be appreciated, and evaluated.
Her first film, “Away From Her”, is the phenomenally well-made story of an aging couple, played by Julie Christie and Gordon Winsett, dealing with illness at the end of their lives. Emotional, heartfelt and very genuine, the film almost earned an Oscar for Chrstie's work. How did Polley create such a remarkable, well-received film her first time out? I’m not sure, but it is an achievement. I defy you to watch this film without a hanky.
Her second film, the recent “Take This Waltz”, starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as Margot and Lou, a young married couple living in Toronto, is less successful. Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby, a recognizable character actor with a lot of TV appearances to his name) and they begin an affair. The film is problematic because Lou is never defined enough to be either good or bad and Margot just seems listless - why she enters into an affair is never really illustrated or credible enough to keep the film grounded.
Now with her third film, Polley writes and directs “The Stories We Tell”, a documentary about her own family. The fifth child of two actors, Michael and Diane, Sarah was a late child and much younger than her siblings. Her mother’s death, when Sarah was only 11, deeply affected her and she began to ask questions. These questions eventually lead to “The Stories We Tell”.
Polley corrals her father, her brothers and sisters, and other key people involved in the story, and gets them to talk on camera about her mother and their family. Each subject seems extremely self-conscious, at least at first, which is a little surprising given each is involved in acting in some way.
Michael types out his thoughts, creating an unpublished, lengthy memoir. Polley brings him to a professional recording studio to read his writing. As he records the audio, her camera records the session. The rest of the interviews are conducted in their own living spaces. The difference between the two scenarios does a couple of things. Because of Michael’s environment, his words seem to have greater weight and also seem under greater scrutiny. As he recounts the events of his life, Polley sits at a mixing board in the adjoining room, listening passively, occasionally asking him to go back and redo a line. During this time, cameras watch both father and daughter, providing a lot of emphasis to his words.
As Michael recounts his story, one thing quickly becomes clear; he and his wife were very different people. Meeting as working actors in the same play, Diane embraces the idea of her profession and wants to enjoy her life to the fullest. Even in the home movies we watch, she is always dancing or mugging for the camera. On the other hand, Michael seems to retreat into the role of father, taking a respectable, steady job. As Michael narrates, we watch their relationship go through some ups and down, leading to cycles in their relationship.
At one point, Diane is offered a role in a new play called “Toronto” which is booked for an extended run in Montreal. During the production, Michael visits Diane and he recognizes a renewed vigor in their love life. Nine months later, Sarah is born. Years later, one of Sarah’s brothers makes a joke leading her to eventually discover Michael might not be her biological father.
“The Stories We Tell” is her story of finding out the truth.
Even though you may know going in what she will find out, Polley goes through the story with the practical, detached eye of a skilled documentarian. The shots of her ‘directing’ her father’s recording sessions show her intently listening to his words, rarely interrupting. Using a wealth of home movie footage, she illustrates the stories each of the participants tells, methodically getting to the center of the story.
“The Stories We Tell” is a quiet, well-made look at one family’s very moving story. I was very emotionally invested in the tale.
(WARNING! Spoiler alert! After you have watched the film, please return to the review and consider the following.)
Until the credits began to roll.
In an age when every great documentary by Errol Morris or Michael Moore, films which reach mass audiences because they are also entertaining, are basically dismissed by Oscar voters in favor or more typical, more boring, traditional documentaries, a lot of scrutiny is placed on how documentaries tell their stories. You have a point of view? Yikes. You don’t have talking head after talking head? That isn’t acceptable. You are trying to make a documentary that is both informative and entertaining? How dare you. No, no, no.
Just as “The Stories We Tell” ends and you are feeling the film’s emotions roll over you, the credits roll and you see that actors were hired to play Diane, Michael and all of the other subjects for the ‘home movie’ footage. Once you see these credits, and you begin to put two and two together, you may ask why this was necessary. Is any of the home movie footage authentic? Every effort is made to make the ‘home movie’ footage look like home movies. Some of the shots are even repeated over and over again, indicating a possible scarcity of material. Then you may realize that Polley was essentially directing her father during the recording session. How did this change the story, if at all?
Documentaries often use ‘recreations’ but these aren’t usually made to look like something you would expect one of the participants to have at hand. Morris frequently uses stylized recreations to illustrate what someone is describing, an event no camera could record. Learning that actors were used to create many, if not all, of the ‘home movies’ detracts from the emotion of the film. And it also raises questions that really shouldn’t enter into the discussion.
Polley is a remarkably gifted director capable of getting her subjects to reveal real, raw emotion. She doesn’t need to resort to fake, manipulated 'home movies' to sell the narrative. Frankly as all of these questions started to circulate in my head and I felt like I had been used. The movie I just watched seemed less emotional and much more manipulative.