Earlier in the year I promised myself that I would explore the genre of the Documentary more this year. I would make a conscious effort to see more documentaries and to appreciate them as a medium for storytelling and as a worthy avenue of filmmaking. That isn’t to say that I turned my nose up at them or anything, I just never really found myself compelled to watch them. I don’t read biographies. I don’t tend to watch those television documentaries (unless they are those hilarious ones on BBC about people who have ongoing relationships with sex dolls). I have just always preferred fiction over fact.
I saw a trailer for a film called ‘Leviathan’ (which I’ve already reviewed) early this year that promised to be the ‘documentary for people who don’t like documentaries’ and so I was compelled to see it. Admirable, but it wasn’t anything wonderful (too avant-garde and underdeveloped). Then I started to read all the glowing reviews for Sarah Polley’s film ‘Stories We Tell’ and since I’m a fan of her work (I really liked ‘Away from Her’ and ‘Take This Waltz’ is easily one of the most underrated films of last year) I decided that I needed to see this movie.
Now THIS is the documentary to redefine the term documentary!
‘Stories We Tell’ manages to be two very different things at once, and balance them so well that one can’t help but become enveloped in every frame. The film is both intimate and personal while at the same time being whimsy and fantastical. It blends fact and fiction in a way I never thought possible and basically creates a genre all its own.
This film belongs alongside films like ‘Zelig’ and ‘Sans Soleil’ as films dwelling within this genre (yes, I’m aware that ‘Zelig’ was a faux-documentary) that break down boundaries and write their own rules and ultimately become benchmarks for greatness.
‘Stories We Tell’ is a masterpiece.
What I think is no neat about this film is that it is not a director exploring a subject that they are merely interested in or vaguely connected to in an extended sense. This is Sarah Polley making a beautiful tribute to her mother. Taking on her parent’s marriage, relationship issues, her early childhood, her mother’s death and then ultimately a shocking family scandal, Polley’s influence, opinion and perspective could have been all over this film in an off-putting and manipulative way, but what makes this film so effective is the restraint that Polley uses in just allowing the interviewees to speak their mind, tell their stories, and inevitably grab our interest. The subject matter, while on the surface may seem rather insignificant or unimportant, has such endearing beauty because it feels so authentic and relatable. This is the story of family, but more than that it is a celebration of memories and how they can shape who we are and where we’ve been.
The same story, told by ten different people, will carry ten different meanings, all of which are equally as important depending on how you chose to look at it.
I don’t want to delve into the scandal addressed in the film’s second half, but there is so much beauty, grace and intelligence to be noted in the way that Polley allows it to be addressed.
One thing that I will touch upon is the visual style with which Sarah uses to color in her documentary. Throughout the film there are so many beautifully detailed sequences of ‘home movies’ that help to pull in the viewer and connect them to the Polley family. Whether it be vacations her parents took or a glimpse of Sarah playing with her father in the yard or an important meeting in a café, these segments help illustrate the intimate story Polley is telling us. When it is uncovered that all of these videos are re-enactments, it becomes all the clearer how brilliant this film really is. Sarah is a visionary director who captured life in a capsule and delivered it wish such substantial style (see what I did there).
And I just want to say that Michael Polley is EVERYTHING. The man is endearing, charming, sweet, heartfelt, honest, passionate and his speaking voice is just captivating. You can sense the love between Sarah and her father and his stamp of approval (and participation) in this project makes it all the more affecting. You fall in love with him, and thus the film takes on an even deeper narrative.
His reaction to the question about what he said to his wife on her deathbed was just…too much for me.
So, I guess it’s clear how I feel about this film. It is one of the best films of the year, period. In fact, outside of ‘Lawrence Anyways’ I’d have to say that this IS the best film of the year. A solid masterpiece in style, substance and technical precision (the editing is so fluid and captivating). This is all around perfection, from every angle.
So, this would warrant an obvious A+. Like, seriously...it's so fucking good! Oscar should reward this with the Documentary Oscar, but I fear it'll lose to something seemingly more important, like 'Blackfish'. I'd love to see Oscar honor this with an Editing nomination as well. I deserves it so much!