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If you watch this movie expecting it to be as advertised, you may be
disappointed, or at any rate bemused. The thumbnail summaries that I
have read, as well as the movie's own introductory passages, all
present it as an exploration of how different people create different
stories from the same event. I think this may be what the director set
out to do. But in fact, in the end everyone pretty much agrees about
what happened, with one or two notable exceptions.
What Sarah Polley ended up creating is a meditation on what breaks families apart, and what holds them together. The insights are important, and often counterintuitive, and sometimes startling. What captured my interest, and moved me deeply, was not the detective aspects of the story -- not the revealing of family secrets -- but the gradual unraveling of their causes and effects. For this, the format of the film -- interviews with many family members and family friends -- is absolutely crucial. Some reviewers have complained that the interviews become boring and repetitive. I admit that some patience is required in hearing them out, but it is amply repaid.
I am also grateful to Sarah Polley for trying to do something different on screen. In the featureless landscape of contemporary cinema, Stories We Tell is a landmark.
I saw this at the Canadian top Ten Film Festival at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto in early January of 2013. It was preceded by a "Mavericks" Q&A featuring Director Sarah Polley with the Festival's Artistic Director. Polley is best known in the USA as an actress in films such as Splice. This is her third feature as director, all of which have been chosen for the Canadian Top Ten. Even though it is a documentary about her family, it is quite riveting, with more than a few surprises. The interview style, camera work and narration are both innovative and effective. One of the interviewees asked her if she has any idea what she is doing, and she said no. After you see this, I think you will disagree. Sarah Polley is one to watch . . . as a writer-director.
Sarah Polley continues to become one of the most innovative and
inventive directors working today and its proved by what she spills out
on the silver screen in her newest endeavor Stories We Tell. A
compelling and personal documentary about her own life, Stories We Tell
blends and fuses the magic of non-fiction with the imagination of the
Telling the story of her own inception, family life, and personal struggle with her own sense of being, Sarah Polley invites the audience into a world that otherwise would seem shameful and dreary but ends up rising triumphant and inspired. While documentaries often take a very serious, somber, and issue-driven approach, Polley's film proves that real life can be just as magnetic without an epiphany of theatrics or cheap camera tricks. Stories We Tell takes cinematic risks that pay off tremendously in both execution partnered with Iris Ng's stunning cinematography. This is one of the best things that the movies have offered this year yet.
When one takes on a personal subject like their family, you always run the risk of starting your film with a wall between you and the audience from the first frame. Family is one of those things that you can only appreciate when you're a part of the madness. If I sit here and tell you countless stories of brothers and sisters bickering, falling in an apple ditch, or simply the origin of our creations, a disinterest may become prevalent because what makes my story any more real than yours? Unless we have some extraordinary circumstances, family is all relative and subjective. Polley's family feels real. While there are painstakingly clear alignments between my family life and hers, the film goes beyond anything that documentaries have offered viewers before. It's not too often you grow to care about members of a family in a 108 minute stretch unless your last name is Brady, Seaver, or Winslow. It's amazing to watch one story, told from different perspectives, yielding different results and emotions. Why Polley decided to do it, I'm not so sure. Maybe it was her own way of making sense of her unfortunate hand that was dealt or perhaps it was a way of release, living with so many unanswered questions, possibly still until this day. I'm grateful she let me in to tell her story. We should all be grateful.
There are surprises, innuendos, and things that the film embraces that must be saved for anyone on the first viewing. All I can say is, Polley has likely set a new precedent and encouragement for filmmakers to do similar experiments in the future. A film such as this that follows the life of people like Jack Nicholson or Angelina Jolie would definitely build an anticipation for many to see. Stories We Tell is kind to soul and heartwarmingly relevant. A film to be remembered. The film played at this year's Montclair Film Festival and is scheduled to be released May 17, 2013.
Sarah Polley has set the stage in mind for many years to tell a simple
story. Much like the process of forming a story, things are always
taken back to the storyboard and new influences are introduced. Sarah
ultimately made the natural choice to deliver this story by simply
setting the basis and allowing each party to tell the story as they
know it, in every detail from each individual memory.
Stories We Tell works a unique twist on the documentary format and allows the audiences into the life of the family and friends who knew the filmmakers mother, Diane Polley. An eccentric ball of energy with the appearance of an open book, she might have really been a big mystery and her secrets could cause a rift throughout all those connected. Family and friends from all corners step up to the plate and what's heard are a melding of scripted order and the unscripted nature of each individual and their memories of the events that unfolded. At times it's an interview, at others it's a humorous interrogation; we witness the mystery unfolding in a truly compelling, warm and emotional fashion. It's a wonderful case study on human beings and how we shape ourselves throughout a lifetime and the events that can change our lives forever. It's fascinating to see how we all perceive moments and how our memories contain them. Different characters have different takes and yet the feelings resonate the same.
Sarah Polley took the right path and remained on the sideline and behind the camera until it was absolutely paramount. The real people tell their stories and actors portray history with an uncanny authenticity. It delivers the reality and the real people involved without bogging down the narrative. This is rich and affecting storytelling at it's finest.
STORIES WE TELL is a quietly thought-provoking exposé of how difficult
it can be to clarify even the simplest truths regarding human
relationships and how "truth" can vary a great deal according to who
you talk to, even when everyone's doing their honest best. The extended
family in this documentary film is a most interesting one, and each
individual member is a fascinating character in her or his own right,
in spite of, perhaps because of, the fact that there is nothing truly
weird about any of them. The extensive use of home video footage from
the 60s, 70s, and 80s really carries the film. The small details--e.g.,
the father's musing on the lonely fly on the wall--are also
significant, as are certain fine points in the dialogue between
Director Sarah Polley and the family members she "interrogates."
Some true surprises occur during the course of the interviews; STORIES WE TELL goes deep in its own subtle, quiet way. Still, at the risk of sounding like a vulture, I was hoping for some darker--or at least more unusual or startling--revelations. While it's easy to understand why the real substance of the film--I don't want to give away the specifics--is critical stuff for Sarah Polley, it's nothing the average person hasn't seen or read in other works, factual or fictional. STORIES WE TELL also takes too long to show what it has to show. While the multiple perspectives are intriguing, they become ponderous and repetitive after a while.
In any event, this film functions well as a simple yet meaningful think-piece. Those who want a lot of variety, excitement, layers & twists, etc, however, may be a trifle bored by it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After reading about the great reviews the so-called expert critics gave
this movie, this was a huge disappointment in so many areas. Which
1. One of the themes of this movie (articulated by Polley herself) is that, "does the truth depend on who does the telling?" That implies (at least to me) that there would be some disagreement on different aspects of the story. There are no disagreements...everyone doesn't know every single detail, but everyone is consistent. And Polley keeps repeating this theme towards the end of the movie. She's a smart woman...what the heck is she talking about? Did she think that if she didn't bring this up that all that would be left was a story that was too thin and too self-indulgent? I thought that while this is a very interesting story for the Polley family, it was not an interesting film about it. That leave us with a very self-indulgent film.
2. The film was too long. This could have been wrapped up about 20 minutes earlier, or the film could have been 20 minutes shorter. Again, self-indulgent.
I don't know Sarah Polley, but she seems like a good person, and her family seems like good people. But the film just didn't work.
Stories We Tell (2012)
**** (out of 4)
Incredibly documentary from filmmaker Sarah Polley who as a child heard stories that the man she thought was her father might not have been. Through interviews with friends, families and those who knew her mother, Polley tries to figure out which part of these stories were true and who exactly her father is. STORIES WE TELL is without question one of the most memorable documentaries to come around in a very long time. I think a strong argument could be made that we're living in an era that has given us so many great documentaries but this here is without question one of the very best. The main focus is to find out who Polley's father is but at the same time the film is about so much more. Just seeing what impact a simple story can have on so many people was just interesting to watch in front of us and Polley pretty much turns this into a Hitchcock thriller because you just never know what twist is going to follow. The director does a terrific job at telling this story, bouncing around from those interviewed to help complete this picture but there's also the impact that her mother's decision had on everyone. There are clips of Polley inside a studio listening to the person she grew up believing was her father tell his side of this story. Just watching her reaction to some of these spoken words was incredibly touching. Also, just being able to see how different person tells the same story and what impact this had on them at the time they heard it was something fascinating. Usually many people might ask what makes Polley's story so special that we, the viewer, should invest time in listening to it. I think what makes STORIES WE TELL so fascinating is her story itself really isn't unlike any story we've probably got in our own closet. By hearing Polley's story you really start to think about some of your own stories and how many of them might be true or lies. Polley has made a name for herself with some pretty good indie dramas but this film here is certainly her crowning achievement so far.
Stories We Tell (2012) is a documentary written and directed by Sarah
Polley. This movie is unusual because it's actually a biography of the
filmmaker and her family, narrated by her father, "starring" her
siblings and herself, along with Polley's relatives and family friends.
But the film isn't straight biography or autobiography. It's a quest
film as well.
Sarah's siblings and family friends begin by talking about Sarah's mother, Diane, who died, aged 55, in 1990, when Sarah was 11 . (There's some actual 8mm footage of the family, intermixed with staged footage that has the same grainy look of old amateur filmmaking.)
Sarah's mother was beautiful, and she was vivacious and fun-loving. Sarah's dad was a handsome, decent person, but no one would describe him as vivacious and fun-loving. The marriage wasn't terrible, but it was clear to the couple--and eventually to their children--that it wasn't a good match.
That much information is established in the first half-hour of the movie. Then the question arises as to whether Sarah's dad is really her biological father. Polley decides to dig for this answer, and interview the same people she's already interviewed, although this time asking the question, "Who's my father?" Polley accumulates information bit by bit, and eventually expands her search to include people who knew Diane when she was performing in a play out of town.
As Sarah embarks on this search, the camera keeps rolling, and we go along at her side. It's a fascinating ride, because everyone has part of the picture, but only two people had the answer, and one of them is no longer alive.
Stories We Tell is a quiet, careful movie. There's anger, but no shouting, sadness, but no tears. Sarah Polley is in the middle of it all, but she's credited as the director, not as the star. In a way, the star of the movie really is the late Diane Polley, but she's the one person who can't tell her side of the story. That's what makes the whole thing so fascinating.
This is a movie you will want to see if you enjoy quiet, thoughtful, serious films. It will work equally well on a small or large screen.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I never review movies but hated this so much and didn't find nearly
enough vitriol on here.
I didn't go into this wanting to dislike it and withheld judgment until the final act. And before I get ripping, I did find the second husband, the polley one, to be likable if completely uninteresting.
As other reviewers have stated, this is not an examination of or even a rumination on narrative or recollection or truth or family. The film attempts to explain to us how deep it is in the last act, seeking to justify itself and help us process the deep currents that arnt there. That stuff is clearly tacked on and then overtly hammered home in a specious, ', if we have have the genial gravitas of a liberal arts class or Ira Glass, maybe people will swallow it' way to compensate for the total flimsiness and worthlessness of the film both formally and in terms of character/narrative/thought/substance.
I'm shocked that a movie that has to literally state its thesis at least three times toward the end in an attempt to justify its existence, and hopes to pass that off as either clever or deep and 'meta', hasn't been more widely ridiculed,
Furthermore, Sarah P is generally unlike able (we hear her voice, and see her in the process of making the film and are imp'icitly supposed to identify with her and root for her without ever being given reason to -and I am a cinephile because I am eager to empathize with the voices and faces on the screen). The mom character, who is sketched broadly and reductively (with the same simple take of her repeated over and over but apparently she was not interesting enough for anyone to have a engaging anecdote), seemed intolerable.
And the biological father (Harry?) is one of the grossest people I have ever seen in a documentary. Totally delusional narcissistic clown, totally Embarrassing to watch.
Incredible shocking disgusting hate-able narcissism that is emblematic of the worst of the wannabe baby boom generation, just as Sarah P seems to hold down the vapid navel gazing narcissism for gen x or whatever she is. Can more people flay this garbage pleease?
Check out Close Up or My Winnipeg for films dealing with the complexity of narrative and origin that actually carry intellectual and artistic weight
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Simply put, this is one of the best and most arresting documentaries
I've ever seen. I find it surprising that it's not very well-known.
It's quietly enjoyable to watch, is thought-provoking, and is the kind
of multi-layered deep meditation I expect critics and film schools to
analyze closely. It's not like anything else I can think of. In fact my
main reaction after my first viewing was WTF? What did I just watch?
This is the most "self-referential" movie I've ever watched. Yet it's done in such an understated way some could watch the whole thing and still not even be consciously aware of it. And it's not just one grand loop between two adjoining levels, but rather a whole bunch of small recursions all over the map. Once you become aware of it, it's likely that you too will find the recursion like nothing you've ever seen.
There are many different ways to read this film. Each of them is complete and self-contained, so you can enjoy the film in one (or more) ways without having to also "get" all the others. Possible readings include:
reading #1] a true story about slowly unearthing biological parentage (i.e. "is my father really my father?")
reading #2] a meditation on how we tell stories and on how different people relate the same story somewhat differently
reading #3] an experiment in just how far the "self-referencing" conceit can be pushed without the whole film collapsing
reading #4] a deconstruction of what "documentary film" means - What is "truth"? What is "accuracy"? Is it even possible?
reading #5] a film about filmmaking, in the tradition of "Day for Night" or "8 1/2"
The audio is mostly interviews and storytellers (where a "story" is a sort of one-sided extended interview). The video matches the words. Sometimes it's the speaker's face. Sometimes it's the action the speaker is describing. Sometimes it's very similar to the event the speaker is relating. Sometimes it's related science - for example when the voice talks about DNA the microscopic picture show chromosomes separating during a cell's Meiosis Anaphase. (Perhaps this was motivated by the science talks in "Mr. Nobody", which Ms. Polley was acting in about the same time she was thinking about this film.) And once in a while it shows the _opposite_ of the words, probably to let us know something isn't quite right.
Nearly half of the film is "flashbacks" on what is initially assumed to be home movie footage ...and some of it really is old home movie footage that's been found and edited in. But we start to become dubious. There's so very much of this footage, and it seems to match the needs of the modern day filmmaker eerily well, and much of it does _not_ follow the stylistic pattern that's mentioned explicitly early on. We're eventually told when the camera first appeared; then it can be carefully noted that some of the footage is from _before_ this date. It also seems odd that the camera filmed so many things that the camera operator couldn't possibly have been present for or even known about. We keep seeing fragments of a clip with Mom and a male on a footbridge - careful examination reveals the male isn't always the same person. Finally we see some really explicit clues: the nowadays director appears in one of the clips, the director is seen giving acting instructions to her Mom, some of the people in the clips are seen getting their film makeup applied, and one camera actually shows another filming one of these clips. A few minutes later it's made even clearer to those that have missed it so far: the exact same scene switches back and forth between the appearance of one of these historic clips and the appearance of the modern day film, then we see Ms. Polley herself both inside that scene and also filming at the same time, and finally realize what she's holding is an old Super 8 camera. The end credits confirm that while some of the flashback clips are authentic, many of them were recreated.
Already at the very beginning "things are not what they seem" is thrown in your face. Pictures of interviews are purposely mis-framed to give away hidden wires, mic booms, light reflectors, tripods, and so forth. Later, interviewees occasionally break the fourth wall, primp on camera, or say outrageous things. We eventually realize the entire family is deeply embedded in the Canadian show-biz world, so deeply that some of the main characters actually had careers as stage actors at one point, and many of the rest were involved in other aspects such as producing or casting. Sure enough, it eventually becomes clear that the "honest" interviews with the main characters are in fact acted. There's even a comment about somebody "falling in love" with the stage character he was playing rather than with the actor himself.
The line between "in front of the camera" and "behind the camera" is shown to be overly precious. It's not even all that well defined; what does it mean when at the same time the visual is in front of the camera, but the audio is behind the camera? At some points a character on camera gives a suggestion for how the film could be edited at that point, then that exact thing really happens. Name any "rule" of documentary filmmaking you like, or any "theory" of how documentary films should guarantee they're presenting "the truth". It's mentioned here, then gleefully flouted or debunked. This film is so clever and so thorough (in its understated, un-obvious way) that it feels like nobody else should ever again make a "self-referential documentary", because the last word has already been spoken.
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