Featuring: Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, John Buchan, Susy Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley, Sarah Polley
Director: Sarah Polley
Writers: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley (also narration)
2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 6–12 Jan, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 14–19 Jan, 8pm
Verdict: A riveting, moving, genre-bending mind-boggler of a film.
Director Sarah Polley was a small child when she lost her mother Diane to cancer. This film documents her quest to discover the person her mother was, but delivers far more than she, her family and others she interviews – and the viewer – bargain for.
Layer by layer, interview by interview, a composite and sometimes contradictory picture of Diane emerges. All seem to agree that she was charismatic and exuberant, a party-loving, life-embracing thespian whose larger-than-life presence endures among those who knew her. However, she is described by some as guileless, an open book, by others as secretive, with her sunny façade concealing a troubled soul within.
Not so extraordinary, you say? Who among us is without secrets? And are not perceptions within families certain to differ, given the complex nature of family and family dynamics?
Well yes, but there’s far more to this tale than can be canvassed in a short precis here – and the less known about the content of the film, the better. This is a ride that is ever more fascinating as it progresses, and part of its pleasure is in the sleuth-like slow reveal en route to a dramatic and powerfully affecting conclusion that is as satisfying and artistically complete as the final chord of a symphony, yet without the neat narrative resolution of a fictional work.
As absorbing as Polley’s investigation and composite portraiture of her mother is, the how is as riveting as the what.
Polley mixes tenses and genres, interspersing interviews in the filmed present of family members and friends of Diane with dramatic reconstructions of the past featuring actors. Is she superimposing a fictional element on a documentary form? Turning her family into characters of her own design? How much has her editing changed the tale, and to what end? Who knows – these are but a few of many areas of intrigue in a film that seems to take on a life of its own, drawing even its creator into its shape-shifting and life-altering world.
Adding to complications is a second narrative voice: Sarah’s father Michael, filmed in a studio reading his memoirs (purportedly) into a microphone. He is intermittently interrupted by her as she watches on from a mixing desk, in editing mode. Indeed, her father and siblings raise the issue of her role as editor and the ways in which she shapes the collaborative story. And when it comes down to it, the film is as much about the nature of truth, perception and recollection, of what is left in and out of the interviewees’ stories, of the influence of the historian on history and its representation, of where art begins and ends, of the morality of Polley’s position as filmmaker invading the sanctity of private family business, as it is about raising Diane from the dead for the benefit of her youngest daughter who barely knew her in life.
There are so many facets to the film – enough to keep film tragics in debate for days. But even viewed simply as real-life family drama, it is never less than enthralling, a tale full of narrative convolutions and twists, compellingly told by articulate folk who are colourful storytellers in their own right.
This is an artistically audacious project invested with courage, the emotional and personal stakes for the Polley family (particularly Sarah) and all intimates of Diane turning out to be far higher than might have been anticipated from the outset. As a filmmaker, Polley has raised the bar to heights unimaginable on her past form (eg: her previous film, Take This Waltz). Stories We Tell is a career-changing quantum jump forward – a filmmaking feat, no less, and one that works brilliantly on all its multiple levels. Don’t miss.
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