Stories We Tell (2012)
November 2, 2019 10:16 AM - Subscribe

A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers. Sarah Polley's fascinating documentary, "Stories We Tell," is ostensibly about her mother, Diane Polley, who died in 1990. A powerful and thoughtful film, it is also not what it at first seems, which is part of the point Polley appears to be interested in making. Can the truth ever actually be known about anything?

Slant: As if adapting a family photo album into a humane Rashomon-esque documentary, Sarah Polley’s multi-faceted and confrontational Stories We Tell lays out the complex history of her family makeup and investigates the seeds of her own existence. Inward-looking, and yet eschewing narcissism, Polley constructs the mostly Toronto-based narrative via inherently nostalgic Super 8 footage, comprehensive interviews with her close relatives and family friends, and an elegantly composed voiceover from the patriarch, Michael. Foreshadowing the conceit of homegrown yet fascinating storytelling of family secrets that would make Ira Glass’s head spin (This Canadian Life, perhaps?), Polley opens the intensely personal film with a quote from Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it’s not yet a story.”

The Guardian: It is a work of some audacity, even effrontery, mixing pastiche Super 8 footage and faux home movies in with her genuine archive material, avowedly because the film is about the unreliability of memory and the consequent importance of democratising personal histories, allowing everyone to tell their stories and give their view. Yet there are no real discrepancies of fact or even interpretation in what she is telling us. In some ways, the "different stories" line could be Polley's way of rationalising or even suppressing unresolved feelings. The film, with all its images, fragments and layers, is Polley's semi-controlled emotional explosion.

NYTimes: “Stories We Tell” has a number of transparent virtues, including its humor and formal design, although its most admirable quality is the deep sense of personal ethics that frames Ms. Polley’s filmmaking choices. Although it touches on intimate points, many recounted by Michael Polley in voice-over, the movie is revelatory rather than exploitative. And while the movie finally proves as much an autobiographical tale as a biographical one, Ms. Polley resists turning it into a flattering self-portrait of a young artist in search of her origins. Instead, building on the interest in narrative form that she expressed in earlier movies like “Take This Waltz,” she explores storytelling itself and the space between a life lived and its different, at times conflicting representations.

WaPo: But what makes “Stories We Tell” far more exceptional than a mere re-hash of reality-TV episodes is Polley’s rigorous adherence to her own principles: letting multiple truths have their day and never allowing the thrill of the hunt to overwhelm the grief that still exerts its unspoken, centripetal force.

With its ingenious structure, seamless visual conceits and mordant humor, “Stories We Tell” is a masterful film on technical and aesthetic values alone. But because of the wisdom and compassion of its maker, it rises to another level entirely. Its finest, most shattering moment isn’t a grand revelation, pivotal encounter or sly piece of visual legerdemain. Rather, it’s an achingly simple, wordless tableau, as the people who loved Diane reflect on the woman who has passed but will never be consigned entirely to the past.

AV Club: Discrepancies are the point in Stories We Tell, which seems most concerned with the way the past is distorted by those remembering it, and how the desire for ownership of a story creates multiple versions of “what really happened.” If there’s a dominant voice here, it belongs to Michael, whose candid reflections provide the film with a sturdy emotional backbone. Sarah, on the other hand, leaves most of the talking to her kin. Self-aware to a fault, and plainly worried that airing her family’s dirty laundry might be an embarrassing act of narcissism, the director comes close to apologizing for the terrific essay-film she’s made.

Senses of Cinema: The “chorus” of voices in this film is evident in two primary ways: the film’s voice-over narration written and read by the director’s father, Michael Polley and the many interviews Polley weaves together: individual interviews with each of her four siblings, with her father and with Harry Gulkin, with members of her extended family, and with her mother’s extensive circle of friends and professional associates. Polley describes these many voices in a post she contributed to the National Film Board of Canada’s blog, “Each of us had a deep and growing need to tell the story, different parts of it, in different ways, with emphasis on different details, in a way that reflected our own experience and what was most important to us as we are now.” Polley’s film aims to capture all of those different “parts,” “ways,” and “details” by knitting the many voices together.

Collider: Stories We Tell shows us from the outset how Polley wrestles with how to impart a deeply personal story and do so with “fairness”. It’s impossible to be objective when remembering a story (objectivity is the greatest deception of the documentary form), but that’s a good thing. A dry recitation of facts would rob the film of its humanity even though Polley almost seems to crave the objectivity as an emotional shield. At one point, she reads an angry e-mail she wrote to Harry, but her recitation of the e-mail is flat and distant. She may occasionally get asked a question by her subject, but she never sits down for a straight confessional about how she feels because as the author of her tale, Stories We Tell is her confessional. And through the lens of Polley trying to understand her parents, we see something more powerful than a simple monologue or a big flashing message. There’s an element of therapy in Stories We Tell, and the movie acknowledges us as the voyeur.


Streaming on Amazon Prime
posted by MoonOrb (1 comment total)
I absolutely loved this film. I wish I had known not to assume all the footage was genuine, granting that this ambiguity was thematic and deliberate, because, well, finding out afterwards bothered me.

It doesn't much matter -- the footage gives us something to watch beyond just her interviewees and it's the interviews and the whole set of revelations that are what's important and very compelling.

I very intensely think in terms of stories and particularly about people in terms of coherent narratives. I am an inveterate storyteller in the sense of this film -- I have countless stories of people I've known and things I've experienced. In person, I'm a middling-to-good storyteller, engaging enough to be a bore only part of the time and occasionally very entertaining. I often feel that I ought to work more at being a better storyteller if I'm going to continue to inflict this habit upon others, although actually studying and practicing it seems a bit affected. That's neither here nor there, though.

The reason this film was so powerful and thought-provoking for me is because I'm so invested in understanding the world and other people via stories -- my own stories -- and, although in relative terms I've proven to have a notably reliable memory (because, given how memory works, I constantly revisit these narratives and keep them anchored relative to each other in time and place) a lifetime of contemplation and observation has led me to believe that in some essential way, all these stories and, indeed, all stories, are in some sense lies. The very things that help maintain the integrity of my memory -- that is, the constant recycling -- are paradoxically the very same things that make them vulnerable to distortion. To the degree we are motivated, and the degree to which we aren't otherwise constrained, we'll alter these memories in each visitation in ways that make them a bit more felicitous to us at the time. In this way, they can, and do, radically drift away from reality. More to the point, the desire for coherent narratives that validate other things we know and provide an overall sense of narrative structure to our whole life experience is a powerful motivation to make these small, cumulative changes.

So, do we really know the things we think we know about our lives, our experiences, and other people? The very, very weird thing is that there is truth in the lies and lies in the truth and, in the end, it's less important how closely these stories adhere to some supposed objective truth than it is what we do with these stories. Because even if the truth is elusive, and it's difficult to really know any other person, the world exists and other people exist and what we do based upon what we believe affects the world and other people. There are constraints, practical and moral.

I think this film sets all this into sharp relief.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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