Published on November 10th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant0
Stories We Tell
It’s hard to talk about Sarah Polley’s new documentary Stories We Tell without giving up the main twist, which is stupid, because there’s not as much of a mystery going on here as some of the reviews and press might have lead us to believe. In fact, the big reveal comes pretty early in the movie. But I’ll write this without spoiling it.
Sarah Polley is a talented Canadian actress, and has also been doing well behind the camera. Her last movie, Away From Her, is a poignant look at aging (it’s not as gut-wrenching as Amour, but she’s no Haneke, and that’s okay). With Stories We Tell, she tries her hand at being a documentarian, turning the camera on her own history as family secrets bubble up to the surface.
The subject of the film, frankly, is only marginally interesting (to us, anyway). It’s intensely personal to Polley, but it’s not like her family secrets involve incest or abuse or something unthinkable. That being said, the strength in this movie isn’t in the story of what happens — it’s in the way she tells it. You aren’t seeing a documentary about a family as much as you’re seeing the making of a documentary about a family. It’s almost a movie within a movie; subjects frequently break the fourth wall and address Polley’s own recollections. We see scenes of her directing her father’s voiceover narration in an audio suite. One subject even asks if he can stop and pee. This allows Polley to be central to the movie, but still maintain a filmmaker’s distance. It offsets things we’d take for granted in a movie like this, for example, pulling back the curtain on how an emotionally affecting narrator does takes. It lets us sit next to her as she sews the movie together, seeing not only the legacy of her family unfold, but also the questions this raises about larger themes.
Stories We Tell is flush with themes central to storytelling and history, things like time and memory. At one point, her brother laughs and remarks, “I trust what you remember more than what I remember right now.” Any police sketch artist can tell you that memory is a funny thing, and Polley’s subjects admit that their reminiscences may have been more created than remembered. This isn’t as Rashoman-like as the film wants us to believe, as the subjects’ memories aren’t really all that different, but it still leaves room to ask questions about the subjectivity of ‘truth.’ (More on that in a moment).
There are some contrived moments, though they are sometimes broken by the subjects themselves, which actually has the effect of jarring you out of clichés and into honest meta-moments. She plays with our expectations of the documentary format and the way stories are told. And I’m not a fan of reenactments, though they are well done here, and thankfully minor. I can’t abide a reenactment. They always remind me of shitty ghost hunting shows and pulpy true crime TV.
Stories We Tell begs the question — is the whole idea of the movie indulgent? Well, maybe it is, but so what? Even the idea that we are narcissistic and compelled to tell our own stories is examined; addressing these questions, the film does a good job at undermining criticism against Polley for her own sense of self-regard.
To return to the idea of truth, as I said, the movie doesn’t really paint broadly different pictures about what happened, which means it’s not as shocking or dramatic as it wants us to think it is. But it does do a good job of leaving us with the idea that we each have our own truth. Our own memories and motivations. To quote Obi-wan Kenobi, “Many of the truths we cling to depend on our own point of view.” The only person in Polley’s family that could have shed the most light on what happened in the past is no longer alive, but even her ‘truth’ would be suspect.
And as much as Polley is letting her family tell the story in their own words to get at each person’s ‘truth,’ she really isn’t. She’s the storyteller here, even if she tries to appear an aloof observer. The very nature of filmmaking makes her a writer and editor, so she can construct the narrative she wants — she has final cut on ‘the truth.’ While this is a personal movie, a lot of the story was already public knowledge and has been written about in the past. So perhaps the reason she made this movie was so she could put her own coda on these events, so she could have final say about what she wanted to believe about her family.
Either way, Polley does an amazing job of delving into all these themes, and also of constructing a unique and interesting documentary. At a panel at TIFF, she admitted she didn’t really know what she was doing, and I think that’s why Stories We Tell works so well. By not having to play by the rules, she brought this piece of work to life. This wouldn’t work for everyone, but Sarah Polley’s smarts and storytelling instincts are evident.