Tripping: Selections from ND/NF 2013: STORIES WE TELL dir. by Sarah Polley

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Sarah Polley  (Canada)

STORIES WE TELL is a masterful autobiographical story of actual and archival events; a docu-narrative mosaic about Sarah Polley’s enchanting mother who dies when Polley is young, and the possibility that she has a different bio father from all her siblings. The story is unbound as a release of truth from all sides.   Polley’s mother connects and disconnects the dots. Polley holds the space for her family to speak freely. She also plays with them a bit, lets there be a montage of reactions to her line of questioning, and gives them the chance to be silent with their memory, or having expressed it, to own it. Her brother Johnny is her casting director, and in his inherent charm almost steals the show as Polley’s mother might. Polley, an actor in her own right, and a successful director of other non autobiographical non docs, plays it straight, giving everyone else their voice. She asks her own father (but is it?) to repeat lines he himself wrote, whether for emotional emphasis, for him to realize what he’s written, or for her to digest, or for the audience to register. In a fascinating turn, we don’t quite know how she feels, though she’s an actress, and her skill here is in not playing a character. She holds back, as a quarter turn to her mother in absentia holding forth. Polley is controlling the scenes but also she is retreating, for emphasis. She wants others to come across with the truths they’ve all withheld from her. She finds out the big news later in her life, (she admits it is a seismic shift), and is still in ways digesting it.  Nothing is funnier than when Polley is playing a Neanderthal, a screaming scene in a cave as she finds out that a journalist is going to run a story on her two fathers before she has spoken to the only person that doesn’t know yet. She runs out to a park dressed in her Neanderthal get-up, then pleads with the journalist not to run the story as people look on aghast. This scene is quite winning and gives the film a wide berth of comic relief for the serious turn the plot has just taken.

There are recreations of actual archival footage mixed in with archival footage, interwoven with interviews with the actual family members. As an audience, we are tripping with Polley and her mom, not even noticing which scenes are recreations and which are archival.  The only actual interview we don’t get is with Polley’s mom. The whole film exists because of her, and pivots on the truths behind her non-stop movement while alive. Polley, as director, gives her mother the starring role in memoriam, and squares her own history right into the present perfect.

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