Sex, Lies and Videotape: Stories We Tell

Film Festivals, FILM
At the New Zealand International Film Festival, Sarah Polley explores the complexity of memory through her family’s oral history.

Is truth a personal concept, or a communal one? Sarah Polley’s stimulating Stories We Tell not only opens its can of worms but proceeds to empty them out onto the table to writhe, constantly reforming in plain view. If the director’s goal was to make a highly personal film which speaks as easily to universal experience, then she has most assuredly succeeded. Documentaries which edit together the highlights package of a life story abound and are, in many cases, of great interest. Biographical documentaries that dig into the vagaries of recollection and truth and the piecemeal construction of corporate memory are less common, and those that do it well are of great value. Polley’s is a layered cinematic investigation comparable to an Errol Morris experience (if you need explanation, from me this is great praise indeed), if lacking his bemused distance and relish for the absurd.

Ostensibly a biography-cum-family-exposé, Stories We Tell constructs a family portrait with the director’s late mother, Diane Polley, at its centre. After a round of introductory and background reminiscing the film beelines towards a long closeted family skeleton. It quickly becomes apparent that Polley’s interest lies as much in the process of discovery and communication as it does with the ‘facts’ unearthed. She utilises a range of talking head interviews, archival footage, and cleverly conceived reconstruction to achieve her goals. All this is then wrapped ‘inside’ an overarching narrative: the memoir of Sarah’s father Michael Polley, self-narrated under his daughter’s direction. The film highlights rather than obscures the dissonant points of view from various family members and other key players. Reminding us once again that we are each the centre of our own narrative and that people and events are interpreted in relation to our particular concerns, values, and prejudices. Truth not so much a collection of discrete facts as a fabric resulting from interwoven strands of partially remembered experience.

Though not strictly in the same ballpark, Polley’s construction choices remind of the recent trend toward blurring documentary and fiction, the ratio of which differs greatly between projects. From such unique cinema as Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film or Richard Linklater’s Bernie to excellent local examples such as Florian Habicht’s Love Story and Alyx Duncan’s The Red House. The director utilises her various production methods—as much as the content itself—to illustrate the murk from which ‘truth’ emerges similar to the way in which Errol Morris builds the identity of multifaceted subject Joyce McKinney in his enthralling 2010 documentary Tabloid. Stories We Tell attempts to give equal weight to all interviewee assertions about, and impressions of Diane and the portion of events in which their lives overlapped. The audience is left to sift the ingredients and mix a tale that best makes sense to them. Polley makes the editorial choice to leave in meta-discussion between her and various family members/friends as to the point, appropriateness, and veracity of the project; another strengthening of more universal themes explored. It would be interesting to see how the principles of the documentary react to this ‘communal truth’ of Diane and her aftermath. Have they broadened their view of her; weaved their own strand into the community’s narrative fabric? Or do they resent this encroachment into their personal experience and feeling? As I also reflect upon my own family and stories I suspect that, like the films I’ve discussed, the responses would also be blended in differing ratios.

Stories We Tell’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

Filed under: Film Festivals, FILM


Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.