In the film’s trailer, Harry Gulkin, a frazzle haired heavy-set man takes a seat in front of the camera. Sarah Polley, the director and interviewer, asks him straight up to tell the story of how he knew her mother and to tell it from the very beginning. He responds rather charmingly, “I guess I should go pee first.”
Stories We Tell is the latest from Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley and serves as a rather impressive testament to the nature behind how we tell stories. According to Harry, and this is the explanation I’ve held the most belief in, stories have only the voices of those who were directly involved in the events. Everything else is mere background noise.
If you were to look at in as the perturbed onion it claims to be, another layer has Polley mining her immediate family—and a small, extended branch—for the story behind how her mother met her father. (It is difficult to talk about this without spoiling too much except to say the trailer suggests Polley’s father may not be the one she grew up recognising as her father.) And beyond that, it explores her identity within the family and what ceases to be known as truth. And then what version of the truth that is exactly. And so on.
Polley is a grown woman since her previous schmaltzy Take This Waltz. That one was an immature tale about a young married couple that felt differently about the relationship—the husband loved her; the wife was reconsidering her options. She pursues her curiosity and begins an affair with a rickshaw driver who lives close by. It was an ode to not confining yourself within one box—nothing wrong with that—but told via a series of painfully annoying, pretentious characters—everything wrong with that.
What’s wrong with this picture is such an approach to the process is only a new thing if you only ever engage with stories in a limited faction. If you’ve ever read a memoir written by someone formerly down-and-out chances are they’ve dropped the line “this is my story to tell, no one else’s” in a last desperate cry to be heard. What Stories We Tell does with the format is not mind blowing, nor is it overly engaging. The story being told is a great one, just not in a great manner.
The film will ultimately find a wide audience for the simple reason of accessibility. Everyone loves a dysfunctional family: the more dysfunctional, the better. Though such an explanation is too simple as to explain what is uncovered over the course of just under two hours, a lot of it may inspire a reactionary experience, depending on your own family history. These are all great things but the final product does not stack up to what it claims to be—a tearful, heart-wrenching account of Polley’s coming-to-be. This is just another documentary.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire