A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers.
“When you're in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.”
Michael Polley, storyteller in Stories We Tell
“Near the beginning of Sarah Polley’s newest film, Stories We Tell (2012), an autobiographical documentary about her family and her life history, Polley asks one of her sisters what she thinks about this very film being made. ‘Who fucking cares about our family? Can I swear?’ her sister replies. This quick line, almost a jokey throwaway, is, in fact, key to Sarah Polley’s conception of autobiography and documentary filmmaking. Polley’s sister, Joanna, like each of the director’s four siblings, will play a vital role providing her thoughts and her memories about the family and their complex relationships, but here near the start of their interview, she questions the very legitimacy of the project and whether their story carries any special weight. Even as she voices skepticism, though, Polley’s sister immediately cedes to the authority of her sister/interviewer/director. ‘Can I swear?’ she asks the documentarian, off screen. Joanna voices her own assertive perspective and pulls back to acknowledge her sister. This short line establishes the push-pull, give-and-take pattern that will continue throughout the film and in many distinct forms. From this pattern, Polley’s film seems to forward an argument about autobiography and documentary filmmaking: that these are plural, collaborative genres most effectively and truthfully made through a chorus of many and diverse voices, a ‘medley’ as her other sister, Susy, describes it, each given freedom as well as equal weight.”
“What’s important in considering Stories We Tell is not to tally up the turns of the story, which are numerous and compelling enough both on paper and onscreen (and are duly inventoried in just about in any other review), but rather the way that Polley chooses to present them: as a thick, interlaced tapestry. There are intimately shot interviews, eloquently scripted and delivered voiceovers (one of which is written and delivered by Polley père in his plummy stage actor’s voice), authentically degraded old home movies, and also elaborately degraded fake old home movies featuring well-cast actors as the younger versions of the major players.”
“In Polley’s work [...] the narrative self is a cinematic storyteller who transforms actual email messages into dramatic scenes, and employs actors to create faux home video footage. Fictional devices, a commonly used strategy in the literary memoir, highlight the constructed nature of identity and memory-driven storytelling, a central theme of the film. An established director of narrative film, Polley employs the camera as mediator for her self-exploration. Consistent with the notion of performatism, the ‘primary’ of ‘ostensive’ frame, moreover, is storytelling, as seen through its objective correlative – the camera, or the various “cameras” that function throughout the film. The camera focuses alternately on the interviewees and on Polley herself, calling attention to the crucial role of the other in her self-representation. Such a strategy cushions the impact of the family revelation at the film’s center, disrupting Polley’s personal identity while pointing to a more fully conscious, if refracted, subjectivity abetted by and within the frame of filmic narrative.”
- 1. Leah Anderst, “Memory’s Chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s Theory of Autobiography,” Senses of Cinema, December 2013.
- 2. Adam Nayman, “Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada),” Cinema Scope, 53, 2013;
- 3. Kate Waites, “Sarah Polley’s Documemoir Stories We Tell: The Refracted Subject,” Biography, vol. 38, no. 4, 2015, 543–555, www.jstor.org/stable/24803074. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.