MRR Review: "Stories We Tell"

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A 2012 documentary written and directed by Sarah Polley chronicling the story of her family, including the revelation that the filmmaker was the product of an extramarital affair.
3.5

MRR Review: "Stories We Tell"

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: September 1, 2012
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Genre: Documentary

In 1966, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni made a film called "Blowup." On the surface, "Blowup" was a crime thriller, but it was really a meditation on the nature of reality and the difficulty of obtaining reliable information-even from a photograph that was taken in a public park in the clear light of day. The closer the photographer looks at what he thinks is a murder in progress, captured by chance on his film, the less certain he finds he can be about what it is he's looking at. By way of a fictional story about a photographer who may have witnessed a murder, Antonioni takes his viewers on a voyage to discover what a tenuous grip on reality they really have.

In "Stories We Tell," Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley has attempted something very similar. Unlike "Blowup," the film is a documentary shot in the cinéma vérité style. It tells the story of Polley's own family through interviews and mock Super-8 footage-footage that was actually shot using actors. The inevitable gaps and inconsistencies of first-person personal recollections are resolved by the novel device of not resolving them. Instead, Polley allows her subjects to go on talking about the various events of her childhood with all of their idiosyncrasies and contradictions intact and makes no effort to reconcile differing accounts.

"Stories We Tell" has been described as having been made in defiance of traditional genre conventions. Indeed, the cinéma vérité style came into vogue in the late 1960s precisely because the older, Mutual-of-Omaha-style documentary film had fallen into disrepute as being too doctrinaire and authoritarian. It was felt at the time that having a single narrative voice dictate a single version of The Truth to its audience was to flirt with an especially insidious form of dishonesty masquerading as truth. Through the 1970s and '80s, vérité, meaning truth, became by far the more popular documentary style for its method of simply presenting interviews and situations as they unfolded.

Where "Stories We Tell" departs from that tradition is in the seamless reconstruction of events that actually weren't captured on film. Without comment, simulated home movies are recreated and filmed with the aid of professional actors before being fatigued to resemble period pieces-period refers here to the Reagan administration, as Polley is very young-before being spliced into the final copy. This is not a conscious deception, as no effort is made to conceal the effect. It is odd, however, that a documentary tradition stretching back to perhaps the mid-1960s and running as a discernible thread through films such as "Waterfall," "The Atomic café," and "Roger and Me" should have so organically come around in almost a full circle to the use-in the service of a clearer understanding of truth, no less-of staged footage and conflicting witness statements. Polley may or may not have known what she was doing, but "Stories We Tell" clearly represents another turn of the wheel in the culture of documentary filmmakers. Whether or not this development is remembered as a turning point or temporary aberration remains to be seen, of course, as does the influence of other contemporary documentaries.

Apart from the documentary aspects and the artificial periodization of the film's central narrative, the technical aspects of the movie have been handled expertly. The lighting and sound are not often what an audience member thinks about during a movie, although they certainly do if something is awry, but "Stories We Tell" manages to maintain high production values throughout. This can never be taken for granted in an independent film, so the seamless integration of these technical aspects comes as a welcome surprise.

"Stories We Tell" has yet to set a new standard in the genre of documentary filmmaking, but it has already done well in the two places an independent filmmaker can reasonably hope. For one, it's doing well at the box office, considering its very limited release. Add to its approximately $175,000 from ticket sales the $100,000 prize at the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards for "Best Canadian Film," and it's beginning to look as though Polley will get a warm reception on the occasion of her next pitch meeting. The prize points to the other area of success this film has seen, that of the critical reaction. Critics have been leaving love notes to "Stories We Tell" all over the pages of their periodicals and movie blogs since the movie's 2012 release, and it's difficult to imagine that at least a few of these critics don't know what they're saying.

"Stories We Tell" is a fresh effort at telling a very personal history. This it does by rewriting the script-literally-that's been in use for documentaries for the last half-century and leading the audience by its collective nose to wonder whether it's even possible to know the whole story of any one event.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5