5 July – 18 July 2013; DCA
In her documentary Stories We Tell director Sarah Polley offers a revealing insight into her own life as she presents the story of her mother’s extra-marital affair and her own uncertainties as to the true identity of her biological father. I must admit, I was unsure what to expect when I took my seat for this film. Upon viewing the trailer, it seemed I was in for a very personal documentary which would explore the plight of a daughter attempting to discover her ancestry despite the chaos such revelations would cause to her family. However, as the film began it became clear that Polley had created something more intricate than a documentary about familial relations. The opening shots of Polley preparing herself for filming, of her siblings discussing the cinematic suitability of their hairstyles, and of her indomitable father entering the recording booth to provide the narration, suggest that this story will be far more personal way than the standard interview.
The film begins with a reflective meditation on the life of Polley’s mother, the late actress Diane Polley. Filling the screen with faux‘Super-8’ home video footage accompanied by narrated testimonies of the children and husband who survived her, these constitute the film’s highly emotive section. We immediately feel intrusive as we hear of Diane’s personal qualities, lost ambitions, even how her husband failed to pleasure her in bed. We are, however, presented with an immediately likeable character in the guise of Sarah’s “father”, Michael Polley, a man for whom the passing of time seems to have provided a wonderfully phlegmatic approach to the events of life. He pulls no punches in discussing his own failings as a husband, whilst also speaking nostalgically about his late wife and the many years they enjoyed together. It is through Michael and Sarah’s siblings, that we learn how Diane set off to Montreal to act in Oh Toronto and that Michael and Diane rekindled the spark of their early marriage there. When Diane returned from the production pregnant, it was assumed that the baby was Michael’s.
The siblings, some years later, make an observation that Sarah does not look anything like the rest of the Polleys and, from that, a family joke began that Diane had an affair whilst performing in Vancouver. Which three actors from the Montreal performance is Sarah’s true father provides some excellent comedic moments as Polley interviews them about their relationship with her mother. Ultimately, Polley’s documentary is intensely intimate, almost uncomfortably so at times. Wide angle shots allow us to see beyond the conventional framing of the subject and we are, at times, highly aware of the fact that we are watching a documentary about making a documentary. However, it is this quality that works masterfully well and is also highly endearing. Through such access to her craft we are able to track Polley’s pivotal involvement within the film, and address the blurred role she adopts as the film’s subject and director.Stories We Tell exhibits a strangely voyeuristic quality which serves to remind us of the uneasy position Polley occupies, listening to such candid revelations of her own family. I shall not reveal the eventual conclusion of her search; I can only urge you to go and see this film for yourself and experience the strange insight into Polley’s search for both her unknown father and deceased mother.