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'Stories We Tell' Breathes New Life into the Documentary Form

Ken Woroner

Stories We Tell is not just very moving; it is an exploration of truth and fiction that will stay with you long after repeated viewings. For a first screening of this picture is simply a way of getting in training for it. It is fiendishly difficult to review and to praise properly. This is not just documentary, but narrative magic. As one figure in the film says to the director, Sarah Polley, “What a vicious director you are.” The remark is offered with paternal humor, but no great irony. For the speaker has been put through the wringer, and a similar process is waiting for anyone hoping to talk about the picture.

This is a film that will be marketed as a documentary, and you are free to take at face value the immediate signs that Sarah Polley is making a nonfiction inquiry into her own family history. Polley is thirty-four, born in Toronto in 1979, the child of Michael and Diane Polley, both of whom had careers as actors. You know her pale face and her red hair turning brown and blonde. She began acting as a child, and her many films include The Sweet HereafterThe Weight of WaterMy Life Without Me, and The Secret Life of Words, as well as Dawn of the Dead and Splice and the TV mini-series John Adams, in which she played the daughter, Nabby. She is also the writer-director of a first feature, Away from Her (nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar), in 2006, which came from an Alice Munro story, in which Julie Christie played a woman drifting away from her long marriage because of Alzheimer’s. Christie was nominated for an Oscar, too.

Diane MacMillan and Michael Polley met when Michael (born in England) played Mick in the Canadian premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. They fell in love and married. Diane had been married before, with two children, but their custody was awarded to the first husband. The Polleys had two more children, and then Diane was offered a part in a play called Toronto, to be produced in Montreal. She went away for a couple of months and when she came back, she found she was pregnant. That child was Sarah, who was eleven when Diane died of cancer.

The film tells us that Michael had an 8 mm camera on which he shot a great deal of home movies. Diane is the star in that jumpy, hand-held, ill-exposed footage. The film is silent, but people say she had a great laugh, and we can feel an impulsive, charismatic woman of considerable sexual attraction and nervous unease. She is dead and there is only the 8 mm footage to go on, so it is legitimate to speak of her being like a character in a drama. She is a commanding close-up on the beach and a hesitant auditioner in black-and-white TV footage where she actually sings a song, though not very well.

So Diane dies, and everyone grows older. Sometimes, in fun and teasing, the other kids told Sarah that she didn’t look much like her father (though it is clear that those two are very close). This meshes vaguely with stories Sarah had heard that her mother might have had a fling during Toronto. So in the spirit of daughter and documentarian, Sarah begins to be a detective of her own history, taking camera and tape recorder wherever she goes. One possibility is that another actor in Toronto might have been her father, but while it is clear that the actor, Geoff, was fond of Diane, he rules himself out as Dad. Then Sarah learns that during her stay in Montreal, Diane was keeping company with a man named Harry Gulkin. He was a political activist and a figure in theater and film. He actually produced Lies My Father Told Me (1975), which was also nominated for a screenplay Oscar.

Harry admits to Sarah that, yes, he and Diane were lovers and that he is indeed her father. There are DNA tests that establish it beyond a doubt. Harry had asked Diane to stay with him and the new baby in Montreal, but she had gone back to Michael in Toronto where family life had resumed with a lie or a concealed truth. No one else in the family knew about Harry.

You may think that I have told you too much, enough to spoil the film. I don’t think so, but I have to set you up for the surprise yet to come that is large enough to lift this picture into a category that really has no name. Let’s just say it’s a great movie. Once Sarah learns the facts, intricate issues of tact and responsibility emerge. She is not sure about telling Michael, because she cannot stand to hurt his feelings. But she is a film-maker as well as a daughter, and she knows that a great story has fallen into her lap, which could make a film about memory, fact, and myth. Meanwhile, Harry, a lover who lost his beloved, feels bound to write the story as his own memoir. He and Sarah clash: She wants to reflect the different feelings of everyone in the family circle; while Harry insists that it is his story and  that only he and Diane knew “the truth.”

So the documentary has to yield some space to being a family story—like Long Day’s Journey Into NightGhosts, and Three Sisters. But those plays are written in tragic tones, and they involve self-destructive people. One of the bonuses in Stories We Tell is how decent and well-meaning the other people in the circle are. They include the siblings and half-siblings as well as friends from several generations. There is a tenderness implicit in the way they talk and pay attention to each other that may be unusually well-behaved, but which also grows out of mutual respect for untidy family get-togethers, children mingling with pets, and the urge to record them all for the album of record and misunderstanding. Stories We Tell is an admission that we are not good with facts. It is possible that these siblings would have more to say off-camera, not least about Sarah’s role as star and director. In family life, everyone is the center.

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The “leads” (if we can use that term) are more dramatically exposed: Diane is a giddy nymph and an eye-grabber; Harry is a figure slumped in loneliness and sadness; Michael is a character Chekhov might have created. And Sarah? Well, she is the wondering daughter, seen at just about every stage of infancy and childhood in stills and home movies. But Sarah is also the demanding overseer, sitting at a sound console, asking Michael to re-do lines from his voice-over commentary when these lines are enough to make him weep. So you can see why Michael regards her as a hard case and a bit of a sadist. The way Michael accepts his demotion as Dad but does not let it interfere with his bond with Sarah is exquisitely done. Yet to call moments from actuality “exquisitely done” could be thought patronizing, sarcastic, or a recognition of art or artifice. So you should recall that Michael was trained as an actor, and actors learn sooner than most of us that in the genre known as real life, you have to present yourself, or play the part, if you want to be understood.

Away from Her was a testing and emotional experience, but it was a conventionally structured film. Last year’s Take This Waltz was a relative disappointment, content to develop predictable characters and stories. That only makes the leap forward into Stories We Tell the more exciting. Polley recently had a child herself, and I think that she was pregnant during much of this production. Only she can judge how much that had to do with the film—though she has a daughter now who could hardly be blamed if she starts photographing people at an early age.

Stories We Tell opens properly in May. But it was in the recent New Directors series in New York and it has already played at the Telluride, Venice, and Sundance film festivals. Its highest achievement is not just as a gripping emotional mystery, but in pondering over the nature of documentary, truth, and storytelling. Our confusion over history and movie fabrication has never been more complex. 

LincolnArgo, and Zero Dark Thirty all play with fact, and our faith. David Mamet’s TV film Phil Spector, armed with a profuse assertion that it is only a story (so don’t sue us), was a flagrant and responsibility-free exploitation of the murder case for which the record producer was convicted. But as a chronicle of reality, it may be more telling on the bluster of Al Pacino than the deviousness of Phil Spector. Documentary and that horrible warning signal “based on fact” are part of our loss of faith in film as a recording instrument. So put documentary alongside film noir, the Western, and the musical. It is just another genre—another way we have of telling stories, some of them as beautiful as this film. 

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.