For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.
My second documentary for day three of the NZIFF was Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, one of the few films I actually knew a reasonable amount about before going in.
Ostensibly a documentary about Polley’s own family, Stories We Tell is centred around her father and mother, and how a long-standing family rumour/in joke is retold and has affected (and been affected by) the wider family network. The somewhat delicate matter is handled with the maturity that Polley has displayed since the beginning of her directorial career, but the bravery to expose such a personal story is staggering. It takes great courage to explore family drama like this privately, let alone making a film for the whole world to see, and even if that were all the film had going for it, Polley would have to be commended.
The story itself is merely one facet of the film however, but what Polley is doing doesn’t become totally clear until very late in the piece. Stories We Tell is comprised of several of the key players telling their own version of events, offering a Rashomon-ish edge of similar tales that are never precisely the same. By weaving all of the threads together, Polley appears to be searching for the closest approximation of the truth she can reach.
Accompanying the interviews is a wealth of candid archival footage, mostly old Super 8 home movies that give a much greater understanding of the unfolding story. Crucially, the one person who could offer Polley the most conclusive answers is the one person who is absent, her late mother. It’s only at the end, when Polley has laid out all the cards, that this intimate family portrait becomes something else entirely.
Stories We Tell may well be the most clever film about storytelling I have seen. The challenge Polley set herself is amazing on its own, but the way she chose to approach the material is so wonderfully unexpected, and cements her position among the smartest young filmmakers working today.