Sunday, June 16, 2013

2013 Sydney Film Festival Review: Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
Writer: Sarah Polley

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance."
                                                                                                        ~ George Bernard Shaw

In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley exhumes those skeletons from her family's closet, and they dance in the most beautiful way. Alternatively, her family secrets are not so much skeletons but embalmed corpses—you don't want them in your presence, but there's a twisted beauty about them. The film is a cathartic work that taps into the innately human desire to divulge; to tell stories. There's a point in the film where Polley mulls over her aspirations for the film. There was a point where Stories We Tell was just a story, and Polley didn't know whether to make a documentary for public release, a home movie, or an art project. I am glad she went with a documentary because it turned out very well, but any format would have reflected that human need to document. When extraordinary things happen to us, it is only natural to want to tell someone. In some cases it may be egotistical, but it's mostly a matter of captivating your audience with wide-eyed wonder.

Going into this film, I was pondering, "What IS this?" I hadn't seen the trailer, and had only read briefly about the subject matter. "Documentary? Biopic? Metafilm? Autobiographical drama?" I'll give you a brief rundown of what to expect in terms of genre and structure, but the story itself will be left for you to discover. The film is a documentary wherein Sarah Polley interviews her family and some acquaintances. Polley asks them about details of her family's past, with a focus on the lives of her parents. That is a very vague and dull summary, but trust me: you do not want to know anything else. I'm glad I didn't do any background reading on the film before I saw it. The film's revelations are not ones you want spoiled.

I must stress that there is more to this film than a series of interviews. Polley intersperses the film with reenactments of critical events shot on grainy Super 8, which makes it challenging to differentiate legitimacy from fabrication. We also see archival footage and some old photographs which make Polley's family members more than just interview subjects. There were points in the film where I wanted to put the kettle on and climb inside the cinema screen. Polley's family charmed my socks off, and I got the impression they have a multitude of stories to tell—stories that are fascinating enough to warrant their own documentaries. Excerpts from Michael Polley's memoirs add warmth and homeliness to the film. His voice is a comforting one, and a smile crept across my face whenever he commanded the screen. 

You are probably wondering why you should see a film about the family of a director. You may think Sarah Polley is an egotist who is all "ME ME ME!" Well, you are wrong. Polley has crafted an intensely personal film that never once lapses into self-indulgence. We all have our own family secrets, and Polley's film allows us to examine our own dilemmas against something else. As someone who has lost all of his grandparents, I found the film refreshing. I miss the days where I would sit on my grandfather's knee to hear one his stories. I didn't care what he told me. Anything that came from his mouth would make me smile, and I regret that I took his presence for granted. Hearing members of Polley's family speak candidly to the camera took me back to my childhood, where hearing a great story was the best thing in the world—even better than getting a PlayStation for Christmas.   

Realistically, this is a film anyone could make. That is no disrespect to Polley, and most people would undoubtedly fall short of what she has achieved here. What I mean is that your history is more interesting than you think. A reservoir of tales runs through every family, and I'm not just talking about funny, fragmentary things (like the time your uncle farted at that funeral). We have to burrow beneath the surface and open ourselves to painful truths. You will find so much if you are willing to get hurt. At the beginning of Stories We Tell, we hear a Margaret Atwood quote: 

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion … It’s only afterwards it becomes anything like a story at all.”

That's why so many worthwhile stories evade us. When we are caught in a moment, we forget that it will be a memory once it is over. Things that are innocuous at the time of their happening evolve into moments that haunt us or provide us with great comfort by mere recall. Memory allows for much mythologising, and one of the main conflicts in the film is deciding whose perspective carries the most validity. Chinese whispers is more than just a game kids play. It happens every day. One person adds an incorrect layer of detail to a story, and that falsity becomes gospel truth. 

Sarah Polley deserves recognition as one of the great female voices in cinema today. I have not seen Away from Her, but I really admired the quirky Take This Waltz. Stories We Tell is a remarkable achievement that would have been emotionally exhausting. At 34, Polley has so much time to add to her already stellar career as writer/director.

I will say one last thing about Stories We Tell. I need to see this film again at various stages of my life to fully make sense of it. At the age of 20, I have so much more to learn about love and loss. I will watch this when I am in my 40s (hopefully married with children), and I will watch this when I am grey and hobbling with a walking cane. Only then will I truly understand the subtle messages of this complex film.  

4/5 stars.

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