Sunday, December 29, 2013

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley is a Canadian actor who has successfully reinvented herself as an able director. In her two films, however, she seems to be more interested in extramarital affairs from the points of view of married women. In her first film, Away from Her, an elderly woman, battling dementia, falls in love with another man. In her next, Take This Waltz, a suburban housewife falls for a handsome stranger. Now comes her documentary about her mother and the unusual circumstances of her birth. This seems to explain her fascination to understand extramarital affairs.

It is the stuff of a classic soap opera. A girl was born of an affair between a married man and her lover. And the mother died. When the girl grew up, she had a nagging suspicion about the affair and made some enquiries and finally stumbled upon her birth-father. While the birth-father was happy to accept her, she was more ambivalent about the whole thing, especially when it came to telling her mother’s husband that his wife had an affair.

So, as a director, Polley decides to capture the whole things in camera, reactions and all. In the documentary, Stories We Tell, we get it all, a love story, a whodunit, a heartbreaking story of skeletons coming out of closets and unlike soap operas, a human story of how normal, ordinary people react to an event as ordinary as these.

Polley said since her mother was no longer alive to tell the whole truth (it was her story after all), and her birth-father could tell only one half of the story, she wanted to see how other people in her mother’s life remembered her, before the truth was revealed and now, especially the man, who brought her up, the injured party, so to speak.

The result is fascinating, and polyphonic, and though sometimes the audience may feel like a voyeur, it is never boring, but always illuminating. There are no heroes and villains in this story, just ordinary people.

When I told a friend about the premise of the film, without even wanting to see it, he felt the film was an unnecessary exercise. What happened to her is very, very personal. He said. Why is she making a show of it? Is she trying to exploit her past for the sake of future glory?

This is a valid question, I thought, and I cannot explain one way or the other. But, Stories We Tell remains a brave document of personal history, whichever way you see it.

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