DVD Review: ‘Stories We Tell’


Having experienced success in front of the camera, Canadian actress Sarah Polley has now made a successful transition to a role behind it. After two fictional narrative features, her attention has now shifted to the narrative of her own kith and kin in engrossing documentary Stories We Tell (2012). Pitched as an investigation into the elusiveness of memory and an exercise in unravelling a Gordian knot of conflicting yarns, the film plays out as a courageously personal flick through an unpredictable family photo album. Released to critical acclaim earlier in the year, the doc now hits shelves courtesy of Curzon Film World.

When Polley was just eleven years of age her mother, Diane, died of cancer and she was subsequently brought up by devoted father, Michael. Years later, questions arose regarding her parentage provoked by a rumour that she was the product of an extra-marital affair. The events that ensued from this suspicion form the crux of this non-fictional tale in which she asks father, siblings, cousins and friends to relay the Polley family history and provide their own perspectives on what happened. Combined with these talking head interviews are reams and reams of apparently original Super 8 home movie footage – the veracity of which is purposely ambiguous – to create an altogether unique version of this familial story.

Luckily, the members of the Polley family that sit before the camera prove to be exceptionally good company. They all speak with incredible warmth about the departed Diane and admirable honesty and eloquence about the emerging situation. What’s more, the potential tangle of multiple narratives only ever amounts to discrepant minor details and the central thrust is imparted with wit and clarity. What this comes to reveal is that Stories We Tell is an awful lot more about Polley herself, than she’d like to have viewers believe. There is a giveaway early on in which Michael is sat in a recording studio reading aloud his account, which his daughter has urged him to compose.

The audience only see the director on rare occasions, but it becomes clear that despite being billed as her family’s versions of events, it’s always Polley’s edit that is being seen and heard. It’s a fascinating story in and of itself, but it takes on further importance when she attempts to author the version of history that she wants to be remembered; one in which Diane is immortalised and Michael provides the textual base rather than other, possibly better-placed figures. Though perhaps not the exploration of narrative it was intended to be, Polley’s Stories We Tell is a wonderful example of a woman trying to get to grips with her past – and that of her family’s.

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Ben Nicholson