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Stories We Tell – Directed by Sarah Polley

filmOn the story

This film had great reviews and sounded really interesting. It was billed as the story of a family secret and the different angles each member of the extended Polley family, and other family friends, had on it.

To put it briefly, it’s about actor couple, Diane and Michael. There are four children, too, Joanna, Mark, Susy, Johnny. You are introduced to all of them, in a melee of friends among familial faces, during the first ten minutes or so. With the exception of Diane. You don’t see Diane although you can tell from the rapturous faces of friends and family that Diane’s presence is a mighty force amongst them.

Polley begins by inviting her interviewees to expand on the story of Michael and Diane. They talk about Michael and Diane falling in love, but about the problems that Diane’s enjoyment of excitement, parties, people, and hunger for the stage contrasts with Michael’s desire for security and solitude. They like their complementary natures, but it also causes friction between them.

After a while, along comes baby Sarah. Sarah is the youngest child. So when Diane dies, the other children have grown up, but Sarah is still only 11.

On telling it like it is

This is the story of grief, you think. Of a father and a daughter growing up alone. There was a Mum, and a Dad, and some children. And then Mum died. And that could be a story in itself.

Although of course, that isn’t all. It would be very wrong to give the impression that this is a documentary without drama. The drama is as much in the editing and as the characters themselves. It is not an automatic given that Polley’s quiet presence, the fifth child, around whom the story revolves, will compare with her Polley’s siblings, who all interview with charm, intelligence and ease. But some topsy-turvy chronology decisions on Polley’s part, not to say deliberate, sly teasing, mean that there are some stunning reveals. It took Polley years to make this film, but it seems effortless, the twists and turns crafted onto the narrative seeming like inspired brilliance rather than the slog it must have been.

You don’t hear Sarah Polley’s version of the story. You do see her, as she directs, listens, films. As she directs and listens to her father, you do see a flicker of a reaction. But you know, at the same time, that she is aware that she is being filmed, and will be aware, as both an actor and a director, of the implications of this.

Don’t forget too that Polley’s parents were both actors. The family is surrounded by a cast of more actors, producers, directors.

How reliable, therefore is the material that you are seeing? It’s at the back of your mind, even while you are watching this warm, loving family articulate their pasts, and what it has done to their present. And they know it too. At one point, Michael says, This is not acting. Not this bit. This bit is real.

Michael says this at a time when you are wondering what it is for two people to love each other. How does that manifest itself if you are not a person to whom showing your emotions comes easily? Does that mean that you love someone any the less? And how easy it is to act something into love? Or edit it? Or write it so?

Which leads us onto writers. More than one of those involved was inspired to write the story down, from their point of view. This leads to contention and conflict over who owns the story. Everyone feels that they own it, but who does?

On owning it

And when you love someone, how much of that love relationship is really the desire for ownership. More than we would admit, I think. Or maybe I am just getting too old. I really think I am. And I think we desire not just ownership of the other person, but more than that, we desire total ownership of the story.

Johnny’s theory on love is that one of the partners always loves the other more than the other loves them. Sometimes it goes up and down. But one always loves the other more, and it’s when there is a great difference in levels that it goes wrong.

It’s an interesting theory. I don’t buy into it, but it’s interesting to apply it to various couples and see definite truths there. I am just not sure that you can compare loves, not by what you see when you watch the people in this film.

They are all wonderful interviewees, but it is Johnny who appears the most single minded/subversive/out of the box. He is the one, consensus says, who very first of all brought up the question mystery at all. And he is the only one who is shown turning the questioning on Sarah for a change; she allows this question and her answer to remain in the edit. Johnny asks Sarah what the film is about and she tells him.  You do think, she’s got a job to sum it up. Because it’s quite late on in the film by that point, and your head’s just about exploding with all the revelations, and questions on what people were thinking, how reliable they are, and how they are presented.

On Forgetting and Remembering

I forgot to say, by the way, that this film is absolutely exceptional. For what it says, and the way in which these things are framed.

To go back to the beginning, you forget as the mystery spins out, that this is a story of grief. The premature death of this remarkable woman is another story. It is the story of many people, and it is a long-time-ago story. But no matter; that moment is allowed to breathe, and not allowed to be swallowed up by the excitement, the conflict, the wondering of the mystery.

We still wonder, all these years later, what was Diane thinking? What did she feel? Why did she do what she did? We feel about her a roundness of character. This is a film about “memory” Sarah Polley tells her brother, when he asks. This is a film about memory, and about memories. It is for the viewer thrilling and moving. But it is also a film for this family. This is a film about a person, all the layers that meant people loved her built up once more into a picture of why she mattered.

[Wow that was a long review! Anyway, we couldn’t find Stories We Tell on at a cinema at any useful time so we watched it through Distrify for a tenner. Apparently, I get 10% of any clicks through this site, although I will believe this when I see it. I just felt ethically bound to tell you that before you part with your precious money. Feel free to click and watch, or else bypass me altogether and Google “Stories we tell Guardian website”, or just don’t watch, it’s all the same to me.

There is also a thorough interview with Sarah Polley at

BUT DO NOT on any account go anywhere near this interview before you have seen the film, because it basically tells you everything that happens in it and you will miss all the wonderful reveals.]


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