At once a documentary, memoir, historical reenactment and labor of love, filmmaker Sarah Polley’s latest work of brilliance, “Stories We Tell”, is now playing at Philadelphia Landmark Theater’s Ritz at the Bourse. By navigating several interviews across two generations of family members and friends, Sarah peels apart layer by layer the history and multiplicities of her mother, Diane Polley, in regards to both her private and public personas.
It is very well crafted, and all-around superlative in editing, writing, as well as its methodology of telling this story through the complexities of many viewpoints. No story is ever simple, we see. A story may be basic, and may have simple consequences, but the refraction of our lives through the past, in the wake of our futures, can be both entertaining and enlightening, as this film depicts.
This is a film quite literally about film-making, though it is never stated outright. By dissecting this relatively new artistic medium, in its ability to both reflect, refract and collect the polymorphisms of truth in all our different lights, it achieves the near impossible. Sarah Polley, more than just a beautiful actress, who survived childhood stardom both in her native Canada via Atom Egoyan’s genius (“The Sweet Hereafter”, “Exotica”, etc.), and television’s “Road to Avonlea”, is a consummate complex thinker. She is an artist in the most important sense; by examining her own experience, her own literal genetic past, she sheds light upon universalities. More than a rote meditation on memory, her documentary feels at the vanguard of a new genre. One senses genres blending, boundaries blurring; when watching “Stories We Tell”, even what you are led to THINK to believe you are seeing, is upended through a brilliant technical revelation of sorts, which requires no words. In the stories of our pasts, nothing is ever what it seems.
There is also a sub-textual film-within-a-film discussed within this documentary, which includes two of the main protagonists’ theatrical work, eerily echoing the entire “plot”, as it were, of this “story”, i.e. the past, which inevitability informs all stories told. In much the same way, in a bizarre coincidental filmic anachronism, the first film in which Sarah Polley captured the hearts of critics and audiences of America (notwithstanding what is perhaps her best work as an actress, Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”), was Atom Egoyan’s sublime 1997 film “The Sweet Hereafter”, which earned him two Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. He lost to James Cameron’s “Titanic”, and Brian Helgeland/Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential”, respectively.
In Egoyan’s film, much like in Polley’s, the camera is used to probe the kaleidoscopic after-effects of one major event, in both narrative and interview frameworks. Each is extraordinary and mesmerizing. Each fracture time, sublimate memory, examine narrative technique and play with the human mind, in both our aural and visual capacity to apprehend artistic renditions of what is immediate either in the past or right now.
If you want to see a highly interesting documentary that just may enrapture you, this film is very much worth the admission price.