I was very happy to finally get to see Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell at the Varsity yesterday afternoon. And, like the real-life storytelling in the film, there will be different variations from those who attended the same screening as to what they saw and what they took away from seeing the film. Here’s mine:
Written or verbal storytelling – even of real-life stories – is filtered through the storyteller, so the same story is never told exactly the same way twice. Details or moments may stand out for one storyteller, to varying degrees, and some may have pieces of the story that others had not witnessed or noticed. In addition to including voice-overs of personal correspondence, family footage and re-enactment scenes (some done with actors), Polley interviews family friends, siblings, the dad she grew up with (Michael Polley), and her birth dad (no spoiler here) and his family, all adding pieces to the puzzle of her examination of how the story of the secret of her birth is told – from the family jokes that Michael wasn’t her dad, to her subsequent investigation, discovery and revelation of her actual birth father. And just as interesting is the exploration of the personality and life of her mother Diane, who died when Polley was 11 years old.
Some of my favourite scenes involve Polley and Michael in the sound studio, with Michael doing the voice recording – while being filmed – reading a piece (part letter, part memoir) he wrote shortly after she told him about finding and meeting her birth father. These scenes are both hysterically funny and extremely touching at the same time – the camera shifting between Polley and Michael – and tears come to my eyes again as I recall the love I saw on the screen. Love and such good humour in the face of such a difficult revelation.
There’s a lot we can learn about a person by hearing what others have to say about him/her and, although she’s no longer with us, we get a glimpse of Diane Polley – albeit mostly second-hand – from descriptions and stories told by those who loved her. Although, again, like all storytelling, any description of an individual personality will be filtered through the eyes – like the lens – of the storyteller. For me, this was also an exploration of a mother the filmmaker didn’t know for very long, relying on others to fill in the blanks of that narrative. It’s clear that Diane was a vivacious woman, a big, fun personality who was loved a lot by her family and friends. Again, told with love, respect and understanding – and even forgiveness – we see Diane’s story too, running in parallel with Polley’s exploration of her own story.
A beautiful, brave and touching film, Stories We Tell shows us the discomfort, pain and humour of this very personal family story, with re-enactment scenes so skillfully shot and edited into the narrative – sometimes with actors playing the family – that we feel like we’re seeing more footage from the family’s personal archive or, in some cases, getting a fly-on-the-wall point of view of some extremely private moments, which also include some quiet, reflective shots of Polley in the background on set. And like all good storytelling, the personal becomes universal in that we can all relate somehow – and laugh and cry and feel surprised as the story unfolds.
Stories We Tell continues its run in Toronto at the Varsity this week. Go see this. Here’s the trailer: