Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stories We Tell (2012): Exorcising Demons on Screen (Documentary)

Stories We Tell (2012)
dir: Sarah Polley

The process of making a documentary is frequently personal and intimate. You discover a topic, you start interviewing the subjects, you edit the piece, you re-interview the subjects, you continue editing, and you get closer and closer to the piece of work.

But, Stories We Tell is personal straight out of the gate. This is a documentary by Sarah Polley about her own family. There's not much more intimate than you can get. But, the topic isn't just about her family, but about everybody's memory of the family, and more specifically, her long-deceased mother.

Sarah, in the process of making the film, all but excised herself from the topic at hand. She interviews all her siblings, her father, aunts, her mother's friends, and her mother's ex co-workers and lovers when she could. Her father also reads from a memoir, in which he details situations from the past. She gets specific and generic memories about her mother, all from different perspectives. Some remember her as a flirt, others say she was chaste. Some remember a vibrant lively personality, others remember somebody who was distant. Some say she was an open book, others say she had many secrets.

Such is the power of memory.

Polley, early in the film, tells one of the subjects that the interview is less an interview and more an interrogation. This is fitting because of the reliance on memory that this film uses. Interrogations are always about memory. In police work, and in this documentary. Memory is fallible, and Polley doesn't just recognize that, she examines that.

And, part of that is due to the shifting narrative of her life. She spent most of her life under the impression that her biological father was her mother's husband, and she was raised by him. Come to find out, her mother had an extensive affair with a guy in a different city, and she is his daughter. But, nobody knew. They suspected. There was even a game when she was a kid teasing her that she's from a different father, though nobody suspected that to be true.

What Polley is saying about humanity isn't straightforward. She never explicitly comes out and says "what I'm saying is..." Instead, Stories We Tell intelligently lets us draw our own conclusions about the drama in our lives, and how its seen from completely different points of view. Do we put on different faces for different people knowing that they know different things about us than other people? Or, do we see other people differently because of how they present themselves to us? How are all of our realities different from each other's realities when it's the same mass of humanity? Polley's story of the basic human search for love is filled with complex characters that aren't drawn into easy stereotypes, letting us all try to figure out what it means to our lives.

Stories We Tell is deeply personal to Sarah Polley. But, the issues she raises are universal to the human experience. And, they're questions we all should be asking ourselves.

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