"It's not the normal way of doing things, is it?" Michael Polley asks his daughter, filmmaker Sarah Polley, in a quietly revealing early scene in the one-of-a-kind documentary Stories We Tell. The elder Polley is trying to make sense of his daughter's filmmaking techniques. It's a fair question, and the answer — which doesn't fully arrive until the film plays itself out more than 100 minutes later — is an emphatic "No."
The third feature directed by Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) and her first documentary, Stories We Tell began in Polley's imagination as an exploration of shared family memories and why everyone seems to have his or her own version of pivotal events. Where it goes is somewhere near the realm of experimental film, though not in the usual sense. Polley's intensely personal and complex work is told and structured in a style all her own, and one that she discovered over the course of a largely unplanned journey. The trail Polley blazes ultimately leads to the kind of soul-baring uncertainty most people don't like to talk about, much less show on the big screen.
Stories We Tell employs members of Polley's immediate and extended families as onscreen storytellers, initially to share the tale of her parents' sometimes troubled marriage. The emphasis falls on Polley's mother Diane, a free-spirited former stage actress who gave up a modest career to care for her family. She's a difficult character to pin down. The family members' varying points of view on both parents show something of the subjective nature of truth. An idea that started as a joke about a potentially life-altering family secret gradually gains steam and takes over the film, and the film's title acquires multiple meanings. When we say someone's "telling a story," sometimes we mean they're not telling the truth.
Polley's carefully constructed film relies heavily on vintage clips from home movies to bring past eras to life while providing relief from the endless stream of talking heads that hamstrings many documentaries. It takes a while to realize that most of this footage is actually staged with actors who resemble Polley's family members and is shot with vintage Super 8 movie cameras, a device that evokes feelings of nostalgia in otherwise dispassionate viewers.
Reenactments are common in documentaries today, but this is something else altogether. Combined with the story's many emotional twists and turns, this technique moves the film away from traditional documentary environs and into uncharted territory. Polley's film was made with support from the Canadian Film Centre's Feature Documentary Program, which provided direct mentoring from masters like Wim Wenders. The Program is intended to help accomplished filmmakers advance the form. Stories We Tell fits the bill. — KEN KORMAN