Stories We Tell
To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, the appropriately Canadian poet and author with whose quote this documentary begins: when you’re in the midst of a story, it isn’t a story at all, it’s a confusion. Only retrospectively can events become stories, when there’s time to examine exactly what happened and take stock.
STORIES WE TELL is entirely contemplative on this idea, and on the nature of storytelling itself. The film, directed by Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley, is a brave and revealing personal account of her parent’s troubled marriage and her mother’s untimely death, told from the perspectives of a range of people who were present at various points of the story. At no point does the film attempt to guide us towards one person’s side as being more truthful; it simply allows each party to share their memories of events. Her family story is at all times both uplifting and sad, and the way in which Polley examines the nature of truth and the fragility of memory through this method of storytelling is remarkably effective and makes for absorbing viewing.
… only retrospectively can events become stories, when there’s time to examine exactly what happened and take stock.
As the film approaches some semblance of resolution, two of the principal characters query their interviewer with ponderings of bias and truth. One remarks that, although the film seems to present an all-rounded view of proceedings, the nature of editing a large amount of footage immediately places a bias on the eventual 110 minutes we’re shown. The other distinctly dislikes the method of storytelling, as there are simply too many narratives with no grounding, no base line of truth on which to defer. The interesting thing about STORIES WE TELL is that Polley is extremely content to juxtapose discrepancies in the story, as if her aim is as much to critique the notion of ‘truth’ as it is to discover the underlying truth of her parent’s story. However, there is also a slight hint that her ‘examining the notion of storytelling’ may be a way to cover up the extreme personal torment that she must have suffered. This is actually alluded to in the film, and it’s to her credit that Polley has left it in the final cut, as it exposes, to an extent, how difficult this process must have been for her.
…her aim is as much to critique the notion of ‘truth’ as it is to discover the underlying truth of her parent’s story.
Although the use of recreated ‘home video’ footage is slightly jarring, and a peculiar, self-conscious decision in a documentary about truth in narrative, as a whole STORIES WE TELL is absolutely captivating viewing. Both heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures, the story behind Sarah Polley is at all times tangible and real. Her sister asks jokingly in the early moments why an audience would be interested in their family story, but it becomes almost immediately apparent that we both should be, and are, incredibly interested in this engrossing and fearless film.
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