December 18, 2013

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley, 2013
Sarah Polley (Splice, Dawn of the Dead, Go) turns the camera on her family in this creative and honest docu-drama which uses immersive recreated footage along with personal interviews with her family members. Polley is very curious about some of her family's past, and wants to get their individual accounts as they dig into their memory banks. Interestingly, they have varying interpretations of various family events. Some of the memories are vivid, some vague, some just aren't there. But the Polley family is colorful. Not without some pain, some surprise, some secrets. But it's those provocative elements which make it very human.

The film opens with the arresting falsetto song "Skinny Love" by Bon Iver. The various siblings casually take their seats in consecutive cuts and ask how they look in front of the camera, providing a casual behind-the-scenes approach to the traditional interviewing style of a standard documentary. Polley continues to re-imagine the standard doc with her recreated family footage. The footage is interlaced with authentic footage, the result feeling surprisingly seamless. Quite a bit of the footage shown is of her late mother Diane Elizabeth, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11. Diane is very natural on screen, constantly singing or dancing. The physical resemblance between Sarah and Diane is obvious, and it's very moving at times to see her mother singing to the camera.

It's not really until the second half of the film that Sarah begins to dig deeper into some of the family secrets, looking for answers. Some of the less favorable topics come up: infidelity, divorce, abuse, dishonesty. And while some of the subject matter is emotional, it certainly never crosses the line into the disturbing realm (like similarly constructed doc Capturing the Friedmans). The film shifts back to Sarah interviewing her father while she sits at a mixing board in a sound studio. She asks him to stop and repeat himself during his ongoing narrative on the other side of the glass. When he does, the camera focuses on a side profile of Sarah listening - with those words clearly affecting her emotionally. You get a sense that there is a catharsis happening. This is a film Polley is seemingly making for herself. She asks some very personal questions and receives some poignant answers. But to her credit, she is more than willing to put it all on the screen. She maintains a certain composure, an honesty, and vulnerability through it all. In the end you realize that while the Polley family may not be perfect, very few families are. There are always some scars. Life is very finite and love comes in many flavors, many of which can be complicated. You can spend the rest of your life blaming your relatives for some of the not-so-great things that have happened, or you can lick your wounds and move on. You look around and see what's surrounding you. In this case it's a lot of people who clearly care about each other and aren't ashamed or embarrassed of their heritage.

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