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Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley explores her family history, and the idea of memory.

Stories We Tell makes “documentary” seem the most limiting of labels. Sarah Polley’s brave quest to uncover her family’s deepest secrets unfolds like a thriller, one where the resolution is literally part of her DNA. It’s an intimate story of truth, memory and reconciliation, not just for Polley and her family but also for astonished viewers.

Seeking definitive answers for long-whispered family rumours, and using her film as an investigative tool, the Toronto filmmaker and actress unearths a blunt fact: Michael Polley, the man who raised her since her 1979 birth and whom she still calls Dad, is not her biological father.

Diane Polley died of cancer in 1990, when Sarah was 11. She took her secrets to the grave, and also her reasons for them. For all of her evident warmth and love, Diane remains something of an enigma. The film doesn’t judge her. Nor do any of the extended Polley clan members and friends, who summon the necessary courage not only to delve into extremely difficult subjects, but also to face up to life-altering consequences.

Polley never flinches from the truth. She tracks down her biological father. Other pieces of an increasingly elaborate life puzzle are carefully set in place. Polley brings her revelations to the screen through archival footage, dramatic re-enactments and almost surreal crosscutting between personal testimonies.

The film's editor, Mike Munn, deserves applause, too. This was an immense amount of material to put together, yet the story never flags. You might find yourself getting so caught up in it, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching dramatic fiction.

Polley said she wasn’t even sure she wanted to make the film at all. But she persisted, and the biggest reveal of all is one that we all can relate to. What defines us as people and as family members is the amount of love we give and take, not DNA under a microscope.

Stories We Tell is a film of fact, remembrance and forgiveness, with no clear path. You just have to trust in Sarah Polley’s steely determination. Polley's personal documentary is extraordinary in every way, from its postmodern structure to the raw emotion of its carefully revealed family secrets. It’s one of the best films of 2012.In a word: Wow.

- Peter Howell, Toronto Star

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