Mythologising family history

Stories We Tell (M). Director: Sarah Polley. Starring: Michael Polley, John Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley. 109 minutes

Every family has its stories. Some more than others. For a family to air its dirty laundry in public might come across as the ultimate in self-indulgence. That Stories We a Tell manages to avoid this is no mean feat.

In it, Canadian actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley turns her camera on members of her own family, and asks them to recount their family history in their own words. She speaks with each one at length, separate from each other in order to avoid cross pollination, and attempts to layer these occasionally inconsistent accounts into a cogent whole that might illuminate one of the large unresolved dramas of their life together. 

She approaches the subject with great humility. Polley herself is in fact at the centre of the story, yet for the most part she hovers at the periphery, while her brothers, sisters, father, and friends and associates of the family sit squarely, boldly, in the camera's gaze. The candidness of the interviewees is utterly compelling, a symptom no doubt of the intimacy they share with the filmmaker, Polley. But Stories We Tell does not feel voyeuristic or exploitative. Polley invites us to join them at the table, not to peep through windows and listen at cracks.

Polley's quest is for truth, yet there is also a self-awareness to the film that highlights the artifice that takes place whenever someone sits down to tell a story, even a true one. The variable reliability of memory, the mythologising of characters and events, and the desire to please or shock or move the listener all shape the way in which a story is told. Stories We Tell manufactures nostalgia through use of home video-style recreations, and several times Polley is shown asking her father to repeat phrases to enhance the emotional impact.

For much of the film Polley is barely seen on camera, except to catch her still-waters expression in response to some of her father's more poignant utterances, or to re-enact certain key scenes. Yet the questions she asks of those whom she loves most in the world are bound up in her very existence. Later in the film one of her brothers challenges her as to her motives for making the film. In response Polley wonders if her motives are entirely selfless, despite her self-effacing approach. Her honesty is disarming.

Polley is clearly desperate to make sense of her family history, but she approaches the subject with great patience, like an anthropologist who has a deep love for those whom she is studying. At the start of the film she instructs her interviewees simply to start from the start and tell it how it was. She no doubt hopes to find clues in the detail, but she also dignifies each participant by allowing them to have a voice.

Late in the film one of her subjects insists that his version of the story is the only relevant one; that all the others are peripheral and obfuscatory. This is pretty nearsighted, and denies the fact that the waves of consequence unite all they touch in the same turbulent waters. But Polley allows even this statement to stand without judgement. At the very least it highlights how fiercely this 'character' feels and possesses these memories even now.

He's right about one thing. The one best placed to reveal the truth is the one who is no longer alive to do so. At the top of every tree that Stories We Tell climbs is Polley's mother, Diana, dead some years. She is spoken about endlessly, yet by the end of the film seems just as distant and enigmatic as she did at the start. In could be that Polley has failed in her attempt to reveal truth. Then again maybe the truth of the life of a family is found in all of its stories, and all versions of those stories, told and retold with abiding love or endless, inevitable loss.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Sarah Polley, family, stories



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