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Venice: Polley's 'Stories We Tell' Is Revealing & Affecting

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood September 4, 2012 at 7:58PM

With Toronto beckoning, I've had to bid a reluctant farewell to Venice where, as much as I liked "BAD 25", "The Iceman", "Disconnect", "Enzo Avitabile Music Life" and "The Master", my pick of the festival was undoubtedly "Stories We Tell". Sarah Polley's third feature as a writer-director – and first non-fiction film – is revelatory in multiple ways, not least as a deeply exposing journey into the heart of the actress' family and own identity.
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Stories We Tell

With Toronto beckoning, I've had to bid a reluctant farewell to Venice where, as much as I liked "BAD 25", "The Iceman", "Disconnect", "Enzo Avitabile Music Life" and "The Master", my pick of the festival was undoubtedly "Stories We Tell". Sarah Polley's third feature as a writer-director – and first non-fiction film – is revelatory in multiple ways, not least as a deeply exposing journey into the heart of the actress' family and own identity.

Splicing together "interrogations" with her siblings, father, family friends and relatives alongside Super-8 footage that features her late mother (who died when Polley was 11), both the real thing and scenarios she's recreated with a frolicsome lookalike, Polley unravels the story of how she came to find out that her biological father wasn't the man who raised her. That's a painful story for anyone to share, and Polley may have chosen not to had her hand not been forced by a journalist who phoned her on the set of "Mr. Nobody" and told her he was about to go public. With one father still in the dark, she tearfully begged for a few days' reprieve – and ultimately decided to make "Stories We Tell" with the full participation of her two dads and the backing of the National Film Board of Canada.

The NFB and producer Anita Lee encouraged Polley to think outside the box, which she does with aplomb, incorporating herself into "Stories We Tell" both as subject and detached, objective observer trying to lay bare the truth through a multiplicity of perspectives. ("Say that again, Dad," should be the film's funny catchphrase – it's what Polley keeps asking her British-born father to do as he reads from his own written account of events.)

Polley opted not to do any interviews in Venice (explaining her reasons in detail here: http://blog.nfb.ca/2012/08/29/stories-we-tell-a-post-by-sarah-polley/). But she did submit to a Q&A session after one screening in which she revealed that her biggest issue making the film was an ethical one about portraying people she loves on screen, wanting everyone to be happy with how they came across while at the same time still presenting "the full, honest picture".

"This film drove me completely crazy for four or five years and I was so happy when it was done," she admitted to an enthusiastic crowd. "I really wanted to give up sometimes but I couldn't be at ease unless I had made it."

Polley also feels that she's come away with a better understanding of the subject matter of her first two directing efforts, "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz". "Both of them feature a woman who was in some ways straying outside of her marriage and trying to find the truth in the relationship," she observed. "Now that I've made 'Stories We Tell' I realise that those films were shadows of this film. The question for me now is, Where do I go from here?"

This article is related to: Venice Film Festival, Reviews, Sarah Polley


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.