Stories We Tell film review

September 26, 2013

(A different version of this review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 26 September 2013.)

In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects, all of which have centred on the theme of adultery in marriage.  In the heartbreaking “Away From Her”, Julie Christie stars as a dementia patient who develops a romantic relationship with another resident of her nursing home, totally forgetting her husband, to his great dismay. “Take This Waltz” – the title is taken from the Leonard Cohen song – also portrays a marriage in crisis.  Seth Rogen stars as Lou Rubin, whose wife (Michelle Williams) leaves him for another man.

With careful plotting and emotional honesty, Polley’s first two directorial outings painfully detailed the impact of adultery on marriages.  But those earlier films did not have the challenge which Polley set herself in “Stories We Tell”, her documentary about her family’s history.  Polley’s interest in this film is not just artistic; it’s about the uncovering of a long-unacknowledged family secret – her late mother’s affair with a fellow Canadian actor.

And the story is very personal, because the adulterous relationship that “Stories We Tell” explores is one that produced Sarah herself.  The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father.   Some years ago, after her mother Diane died in 1990, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Canadian Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal.  Ironically, the title of Gulkin’s most famous film, the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning “Lies My Father Told Me” (1975), has an eerie resonance to the “lies” that Sarah Polley was told about her real father when growing up.

“Stories We Tell” uses family archives, interviews with siblings and family friends, along re-created scenes from Sarah’s childhood to investigate this unravelling of family secrets.  Polley shot the recreated scenes with actors and a Super-8 camera, achieving a verisimilitude that adds profoundly to the impact of “Stories We Tell”.  But don’t be fooled: this is “manufactured memory”, based on the stories that people tell.

Transcending the limitations of the usual personal documentary, Polley is, we come to realise, asking some “big” questions.  Are we all just re-creating memories to suit our own purposes?  How much did her father know, and when did he know it?  Why did her mother never tell her?  These are great questions; the fact that we do not have reliable answers makes Polley’s film memorable, because she knows that each person is creating their own narrative to suit their own emotional needs.  Watching this film is about investigating a mystery for which there are no definite answers.

A number of fictional films have portrayed stories of “found” Jewish identity: the 2010 British comedy “The Infidel” explored what happened when a British Muslim found out that he was actually Jewish.  Unfortunately, Polley skips some of the most interesting parts:  what, exactly, does having a Jewish biological father mean to her?  The film shows Sarah at a Passover seder with Gulkin, but we never quite know if this new-found identity has produced any changes in her.

Does Polley’s fascination with adultery – reflected in both of her dramatic features, completed before “Stories We Tell” – result from her own personal history?  Was there any particular reason that she made the Seth Rogen’s character Jewish in “Take This Waltz”?  We do not know.

Despite – or perhaps, because of – these unanswered questions, “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable stories you will see on film this year.

Stories We Tell(photo:  Sarah Polley with Harry Gulkin)

Canadian cinema box office

August 13, 2010

Now here’s a topic which you don’t see a great deal of writing about, at least not here in Australia – or in the USA for that matter:  the movie box office in Canada.  The post below has been adapted  from my PhD thesis, which is due for completion later this year (2010).

Few commentators have attempted to disaggregate the North American movie box office figures, but it is important to note that when people talk about “American” movie box office figures – which are typically quoted in all of the media – they actually include Canada and are thus for both countries.  However, the Canadian response to films can sometimes be quite different from the American (to be specific, “the United States of America” or USA) response, with the gross figures disguising some useful variations.  As an example, let’s examine how two controversial films released in 2004 – The Passion of the Christ (directed by Mel Gibson) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (directed by Michael Moore) fared in the USA and Canada, and how those figures actually differed.

Canadian journalist Peter Chattaway points out that as of April 2004, the Canadian population was 31,825,416 and the United States population was 293,713,183, totalling 325,538,599 – giving Canada then about 9.7% of the total North American population (or film “market”) at that time.  Analysing the 2004 figures based on the Canadian film website, he concluded that Canadians responded more strongly than Americans to British films and not nearly as well to ethnic or “Ben Stiller” comedies such as Dodgeball.  In particular, they really liked “American-politics-bashing films like Fahrenheit 9/11”, which had obtained up to 15% (50% higher than expected, or approximately $18 million) of the North American box office – compared to some 10% of the population.  By comparison, in Canada the film The Passion of the Christ only grossed 7% (30% less than expected, approximately $26 million) of the North American box office.  (See the Chattaway articles in Canadian Christianity and Arts and Faith).

The result of these differences is that the gross North American figures actually understate the relative popularity of The Passion in the USA specifically (by approximately 3% or up to $11 million) and overstate the relative popularity of Fahrenheit 9/11 by approximately 5% (or up to $6 million)[1].  Thus for some films, examining the amalgamated North American box office and making conclusions (especially cultural or political) on that alone can be misplaced, as the figures can hide what are sometimes substantial Canadian-United States country differences.  It is also important to note that if Canada were listed separately in the international box office tables – such as Box Office Mojo (where it does not appear separately), it would be listed as the second most significant market for both films and for most films that are released theatrically.

This has some relevance for comparisons to Australia, as Canadian and Australian geography are frequently compared (both countries having a relatively dense population living along a small rim of land with a vast and mostly unpopulated interior).  The Australian and Canadian box office response to The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11 were much closer than either one to the American (USA) response.  This is a concept worth testing across a range of other films and entertainment products.  But the conclusion is likely to be the same:  Australia and the USA audience responses often appear to be slightly closer than they really are in part because of the consistently mitigating effects of incorporating Canadian figures.


[1] These percentages are estimates only, based on gross North American box office.  For detailed Canadian box office figures which Chattaway bases his analysis on, see (for The Passion of the Christ) and (for Fahrenheit 9/11)