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Film Review: Stories We Tell

Scene from Stories We Tell. Courtesy of 2011 National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

There’s a moment in Stories We Tell when Michael Polley, the paternal linchpin of the film, talks about the flies that infiltrate his apartment and provide his daily company. “They look for food, they look for a mate; they never ask why.” Michael’s musings are full of wistful warmth, but his admiration for those unselfconscious flies touches the tender spot of this documentary.

Because unfortunately, as Michael implies, we are not insects. We need narrative, we need to solidify the ‘then’ that has led to the ‘now’. We need a ‘why’. It’s a uniquely human quest – one that involves imagination, memory, love, fear – and in the case of Stories We Tell it’s a subject explored via the filmmaker’s personal family history.

Created by actress and director Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell is on its surface a retelling of one particular story: her mother Diane’s – a vivacious, outgoing actress long since departed. Diane is the vacant heart of the film – the final years of her life given shape through ethereal home footage and interviews with those to whom she was closest. Early in the film Sarah describes the project as an ‘interrogation’, though it gradually begins to become clear that it is not the past on trial, but the present.

The story is continually undercut by allusions and references to the mechanics of cinematic production, and questions about the point of the documentary itself. “Why would anyone be interested in our family?” asks one of the siblings, and for the first part of Stories We Tell it’s a question the audience may also find itself asking.

Because during its early stages the film’s establishment of biographical detail veers dangerously close to “come and see our family photo album!” territory – that uneasy mix of intimacy (for insiders) and boredom (for outsiders). But little by little Stories We Tell begins to foreground its main theme – the fallibility, necessity, and narrative structure of memory – and it is this theme that gives the film its universal undertow, adding resonance, depth and sadness to the Polley family’s tale.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of Stories We Tell is that, while exploring a cold relativist cliché – the elusiveness of ‘truth’ in a world of different perspectives – it manages to sustain a vital human pulse, allowing the audience to glimpse a deeper, perhaps darker truth about memory’s melancholy role in Homo Sapiens’ existential struggle . Oh to be a fly…

Gareth Thornton

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