The Myths and the Truths in the ‘Stories We Tell’

[15 October 2013]

By Adrian Warren

If your awareness of the work of the Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley is limited to her starring role in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, I suspect you’re going to find the documentary Stories We Tell something of a mini revelation.

Stories We Tell is Polley’s third feature-length film as director, and her first documentary. Her directorial debut, the award-winning Away from Her, heralded the arrival of a promising new filmmaking talent, and whilst Stories We Tell is not as artistically satisfying as her first film, it nevertheless represents an interesting career progression, and it certainly offers a complex and engaging narrative.

Stories We Tell is a highly personal project for Polley, as she turns a lens towards her kin and examines her own recent family history – and more specifically her parent’s relationship and questions surrounding her own paternity.

Whilst the film is certainly intelligently handled and literate, it also tends to meander and drag here and there, indicating that Polley may be too close to her material to be truly objective, the instincts of the internal editor disengaged. Determining what is and isn’t intriguing to those people outside the family fold (in other words, her audience) must have been a challenge for Polley when she is so involved in the story.

Still, the format and thrust of the film are intriguing. In addition to being undeniably effective and moving in the way it examines a familial breakup and the potential transience of love, marriage and attachment, Stories We Tell is also narratively reminiscent of a kind of non-fiction Tarantino script, in which various people recall the same historical event but with different recollections and memories of it.

Indeed, this seems to be Polley’s directorial agenda: to what extent are our family histories constructed by way of embellishment? What is genuinely true and reliable, and what is myth—the product of rumour, forgetfulness, misapprehension, misunderstanding and assumption?

Additionally, do we romanticise and idealise those we love to the extent that we blind ourselves to their flaws and shortcomings? Even the film’s un-documentary like title appears to question the veracity of personal testimony, with the insinuatory terms “tell” and “stories” appearing to have more in common with tales and fiction than accurate reportage. (It’s worth mentioning here that Polley’s father Michael, the film’s main participant, is an accomplished actor and something of a raconteur too).

The majority of the film consists of talking head interviews and old Super 8mm home movie excerpts. (Some controversy arose when it transpired that a few of the family’s cine film sequences had been recreated as dramatic reconstructions, but these are actually few and far between, and make up just a tiny proportion of the historic film scenes).

The pace of the film is subtle, and information about the family is drip-fed to us. New participants in the film are only introduced when their experiences become pertinent to the family’s timeline, which ensures each new dramatic revelation comes as a surprise.

Polley is keenly aware that she is both choreographer and major participant, so her tangible presence is never too far away. Despite being the film’s director, she is frequently heard off-camera conversing with the subjects being filmed. She also appears on-camera often too, listening and nodding as the stories unfold, prompting her family from behind the camera, supervising her father’s voiceover sessions at a studio mixing desk and so on.

Unlike many documentary makers who wish to preserve their film’s metadiscourse, Polley is unafraid to draw attention to both the paraphernalia of filmmaking and the film’s methods of construction too, keen as she to demonstrate various aspects of its creation; this helps to dissipate notions of directorial objectivity, and it also complicates the artistic distinction between filmmaker and film. This is no doubt Polley’s way of conveying to us that she not just an observer, not just a chronicler—she is integral to the construction of the narrative, and not just in a filmmaking context. The source material constitutes her real life.

Overall, Stories We Tell is an unusual film, and quite a brave one too – it takes courage to chart one’s family history when so much of the story focuses on the fallibility of both relations and relationships. That said, despite the focus on myth and memory, the film is also full of truth too, often painful, and that is what makes Stories We Tell so compelling.

Considering Polley’s eclectic career as a director so far, it’ll be fascinating to see where she goes next.

There are no extras on the disc.

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