“Can you tell me the whole story, in your own words, from beginning to end?”
This is the question that serves as the catalyst for the interviews that Sarah Polley asks her own family at the beginning of Stories We Tell. Because, while Stories We Tell is very much framed through Polley’s discovery of her parentage, and the way this impacted her relationship with her father, and the memory she has of her late mother, what it really seems to be about is exactly what the story implies – storytelling. Recollections of Sarah’s mother are almost fractured, coming from different points of view from different family members and friends. It’s this factor that gives Stories We Tell one of its most quietly powerful aspects, it’s feeling of universality. Early on in the film, Sarah is asked by one of her interviewees “who the fuck would want to hear about our family?”. and while of course, as I mentioned, the family is the crux of the film’s narrative, by focusing almost more on the storytellers and their memories than the story itself, the film becomes, rather than what could almost be construed as a vanity project, a unique way in which we remember the past, and how it impacts our feature.
It is through this, perhaps unnoticeable thematic element that the almost deceptive complexity of Stories We Tell can be seen, something reflected in the way its constructed. It uses three different elements to convey its story: the interviews, filmed footage made to look like super-8 home movies, and narration from Michael Polley’s memoir. The layers of the film’s construction, and the way they are intertwined perfectly complements the thematic elements of the film, as well as allowing for refreshing visual touches (particularly the integration of the filmed footage) that stop it from becoming stale.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never been the biggest fan of documentary cinema. I’m not even sure why I haven’t, I kinda struggle to get invested and drawn in by it, it feels like there’s an element of the unknown that’s missing from fiction films. I was worried that, while I was watching Stories We Tell that I’d, for want of more subtle phrasing, get bored. And while I did find that, as the narrative was shown more, that earlier elements were almost redundant, I was still intrigued as to exactly how it would unfold. These almost redundant elements did irritate me at times though, leading to what were almost pacing issues. Not that it’s a particularly long film (just shy of an hour fifty), but in exploring in detail only the elements of the story that were shown in the latter half of the film, parts of the first half become almost irrelevant. But the more I’ve thought about the film, and, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this review, it occurred to me that the story itself is only about 50% of what Stories We Tell is about. In fact, the more I’ve thought about the film, the more it’s hit me that the storytelling is more important than the story itself. The medium of film itself is foregrounded throughout (it’s almost constructivist in it’s approach) – we see Sarah filming things that are shown later, we see Michael in the recording studio as he records the voiceover used throughout the film. The way the story is told may have some issues, but that almost feels like the point.
One of the only documentaries I’ve seen in a movie theatre, there’s a lot to say about Stories We Tell. A fractured, contradictory narrative is used as a springboard to consider broader themes – memory, family, and the art of telling stories. With a unique visual style and foregrounding of the cinematic medium, it is a film of subtlety, nuance and complexity. A small marvel, and the first great film I’ve seen all year.