Rob Edelman: Family History

Jul 29, 2013

A couple months ago, while still playing the film festival circuit, an extraordinary documentary-- one of the very best films of the year-- opened theatrically in the U.S. It now slowly is making its way into theaters. I saw it this past fall at the Toronto Film Festival and discussed it in detail. I want to cite it again because it is well-worth spotlighting as it becomes increasingly available to audiences.

The film is titled STORIES WE TELL. Its director is Sarah Polley, and it is a revealing, brutally honest biographical film. It must be noted here that Polley, a Canadian, is the product of a show business family. Her British-born father, Michael, is an actor of renown. But the centerpiece of STORIES WE TELL is Polley’s mother Diane, an actress and casting director who contracted cancer and died in 1990, when Sarah was eleven.

Not surprisingly, Sarah seems to be haunted by the memory of Diane. She wants to understand who her mother was and, if you are a filmmaker, one way of accomplishing this is by making a cinematic inquiry into Diane’s life. So early on, a color head-shot of an adult Sarah is followed by a black-and-white image of Diane, which serves as a visual-- and, if you will, spiritual-- link between mother and daughter.

Polley uses period television footage, reenactments, and interviews-- which she refers to as an “interrogation process”-- to tell her family story and Diane’s story. Our first impression of Diane is that she was a vibrant soul whose smile and presence lit up any room she entered. One even might say that STORIES WE TELL is Polley’s effort to keep her mother alive, to keep her in memory.

But then Polley begins asking questions that, to put it mildly, are gutsy and provocative. Was there more to Diane than her cheery presence? Was she truly happy and fulfilled in her marriage? Did she have extramarital affairs and, in particular, did she have them while appearing in a play in Montreal? Finally, did one of these liaisons result in Diane’s pregnancy with Sarah? In other words, is Michael Polley not Sarah’s biological father?

In a general way, STORIES WE TELL is no-holds-barred as it deals with the issues and frustrations existing between married adults. But what separates it from countless other films that spotlight this theme is that, first, it is a documentary and, second, it is a story that is so personal to the filmmaker.

Not surprisingly, this theme of shifting affections is ever-present in the fiction films that Polley previously directed. AWAY FROM HER, released in 2006, is the tale of an older woman who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband must deal not just with her entry into a nursing home but with her growing involvement with another man. TAKE THIS WALTZ, from 2011, is the story of an otherwise happily married twentysomething who, through no fault of her nice-guy husband, becomes romantically involved with another man.

I greatly admire Sarah Polley for her choice of subjects in her films, and I was completely fascinated by STORIES WE TELL. This is a film that on so many levels relates to each and every family and to one’s family secrets, whatever they may be. But while watching the film, I kept asking myself: Is Polley exposing to one and all what really is a private issue? More to the point, what would Diane Polley say about this film? Would she approve? Would she want her issues revealed on film, for all the world to see?

This, of course, is a question that can never be answered.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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