The Myths and the Truths in the 'Stories We Tell'

Sarah Polley's fascinating documentary focuses on her family history, and the extent to which memories are embellished and distorted over time.

Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Michael Polley, John Buchan
Distributor: Curzon
UK Release date: 2013-09-23

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.





Nazis, Nostalgia, and Critique in Taika Waititi's 'Jojo Rabbit'

Arriving amidst the exhaustion of the past (21st century cultural stagnation), Waititi locates a new potential object for the nostalgic gaze with Jojo Rabbit: unpleasant and traumatic events themselves.


Why I Did Not Watch 'Hamilton' on Disney+

Just as Disney's Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.


LA Popsters Paper Jackets Deliver a Message We Should Embrace (premiere + interview)

Two days before releasing their second album, LA-based pop-rock sextet Paper Jackets present a seemingly prescient music video that finds a way to ease your pain during these hard times.


'Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You

Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN.


Punk Rock's WiiRMZ Rage at the Dying of the Light on 'Faster Cheaper'

The eight songs on WiiRMZ's Faster Cheaper are like a good sock to the jaw, bone-rattling, and disorienting in their potency.


Chris Stamey Paints in "A Brand-New Shade of Blue" (premiere + interview)

Chris Stamey adds more new songs for the 20th century with his latest album, finished while he was in quarantine. The material comes from an especially prolific 2019. "It's like flying a kite and also being the kite. It's a euphoric time," he says.


Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'

Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.


Gábor Lázár Is in Something of a Holding Pattern on 'Source'

Experimental electronic artist Gábor Lázár spins his wheels with a new album that's intermittently exciting but often lacking in variety.


Margo Price Is Rumored to Be the New Stevie Nicks

Margo Price was marketed as country rock because of her rural roots. But she was always more rock than country, as one can hear on That's How Rumors Get Started.


DMA'S Discuss Their Dancier New Album 'The Glow'

DMA'S lead-singer, Tommy O'Dell, discusses the band's new album The Glow, and talks about the dancier direction in their latest music.


The Bacon Brothers Deliver Solemn Statement With "Corona Tune" (premiere + interview)

Written and recorded during the 2020 quarantine, "Corona Tune" exemplifies the Bacon Brothers' ability to speak to the gravity of the present moment.


Garage Rockers the Bobby Lees Pay Tribute to "Wendy" (premiere)

The Bobby Lees' "Wendy" is a simmering slice of riot 'n' roll that could have come from the garage or the gutter but brims with punk attitude.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.