Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sarah Polley's fascinating look at her family

Sarah Polley's documentary The Stories We Tell struck me as a cross between a tabloid expose about a startling piece of family history and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of memory, truth and the importance of stories.

With that kind of broad agenda, Polley's film also (and perhaps inevitably) encourages us to think about the nature of documentaries, a genre that might include re-enactments of key events, old home movie footage and images that remind us that we're watching a film.

Polley, of course, is both a director and an actress and, as such, understands the theatrical value of certain disclosures that the film makes, even as she exposes the some of the mechanics of her filmmaking: We see the recording of a voice-over, an eloquent and revealing narration by her father, and at times, we even see the camera.

Polley, a Canadian, contextualizes her movie with an opening quote from Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood: "When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion. ... It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you're telling it, to yourself or to someone else."

Perhaps inspired by Atwood's observation, Polley does two complicated things at once: She makes us keenly aware of the odd, inherently shapeless nature of experience and she attunes us to the processes by which those experiences are given structure and meaning.

Because of the movie's major revelation (no, I'm not going to disclose it here), Polley also raises the question of story and ownership; at least one of the people she interviews (she calls them storytellers) vies to establish his version of the story as the most valid. He questions the right of others even to tell the story.

This multi-faceted family tale revolves around Polley's mother, Diane, a woman with an out-sized personality. Diane, who died from cancer, was a vivacious woman, an actress who became the center of attention in a large family.

Polley's siblings, her father, aunts, uncles and family friends become the director's main sources of information. For her part, Polley tries to maintain a kind of authorial neutrality, as the story unfolds.

Before Polley concludes this family tale, she manages to tether the movie's more abstract elements to emotional realities that can be quite affecting. Her's is not a dry, theoretical or (heaven forbid) meditative movie, but a story anchored in flesh and blood, joy and pain.

Polley, who directed two features (Take This Waltz and Away From Her) prior to this documentary, is a smart and gifted filmmaker, and although she breaks no ground stylistically, her documentary reminded me of why Errol Morris, who makes wonderful films (Fog of War, Mr. Death, A Brief History of Time) that often are classified as documentaries, prefers to call his work ... well ... films, why he's leery of the term "documentary."

I've seen The Stories We Tell compared to Akira Kurosawa's Rashamon, a movie in which the same basic story was told from a variety of different perspectives, each full of its own vested interests. I didn't see Polley's film quite that way, primarily because the major facts of the story aren't in dispute. What's up for grabs is what those facts might mean, and who's in the best position to construct the story they seem to demand.

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