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Stories We Tell

Stories We TellDirected by Sarah Polley
Stars Michael Polley, John Buchan, Mark Polley

This is definitely one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better off you are. Stories We Tell is a multi-layered exploration of the Polley family history, with surprises scattered throughout. It is also more than that, presenting a discussion about the creation of family mythos, and the nature of truth.

At the heart of this documentary is the story of Diane Polley, an aspiring actress and mother, whose actions have had ramifications for the Polley family stretching to the present day. Her daughter Sarah tries to reconstruct her life to discover a mother she lost during her early childhood. What she uncovers grants us an intimate window into her family life and a number of progressively more startling revelations.

Actor/director Sarah Polley (Away From Her) brings us a deceptively simply formatted documentary that demonstrates a mastery of the craft. Diane’s tale is told through a combination of interviews, 8mm family film, TV appearances, re-enactment, letters and the narration of her father, Michael Polley. All apparently fairly standard stuff.

What lifts this above the normal is how Sarah uses this to construct the tale. Her mother’s story is far from simple. The audience starts with the picture of Diane as a mother, then we shift back to how she met her husband. As more is revealed, subsequent revelations making us question previous events. To add to this uncertainty the accounts given by the interviewees are often somewhat contradictory, not just in the sequence of events, but often in accounts of motivation or even the characterisation of Diane. Hence we are presented a multifaceted portrait of Diane, pieced together from friends, family and co-workers, all with different experiences of her, some with differing agendas.

In part that is the crux of this documentary. In her examination of her mother’s life, Sarah Polley not only looks at telling the story, but the methods of telling the tale. She is neither an impartial or nonintrusive director, but is willing to break the fourth wall. At times this is to elicit a reaction from an interviewee, or to emphasise a certain point, at other times it is to give direction, taking us out of the moment and making us realise how constructed a situation is. Through various methods we are made to question how truth is constructed by a storyteller, and dispute the authority they have to shape it.

A marvellously crafted piece that somehow manages to give a very private insight into a families tale, while making you question the exact truth of what you are being told. This really is a movie that keeps you guessing though out, with even the end credits revealing a number of shocking twists. Definitely a movie that will promote discussion, but hopefully only with those who have already seen it so as not to wreck the surprise.


Stories We Tell screens as  part of the Lotterywest Festival Films Season at Somerville until January 12 and Joondalup Pines from January 14 – 19. For more details, head to

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