STORIES WE TELL (2013)
Written and directed by Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell is a fascinating documentary that explores the anthropological tradition of oral history through the lives of one family. Polley places her own family under a microscope as she sets out to unearth memories and piece together different points of view of the same story. Polley’s film succeeds in that it shows how interesting storytelling is and how there’s almost a craft and an art to imparting information selectively, in certain increments, and sometimes even accidentally. Not only was the story of the Polley family really engrossing to watch, but it is evident upon seeing the film that so much time, effort and care was put into the telling of this tale. Perhaps because it was personal to her, Polley felt that she needed to be as thorough and respectful as possible while still giving audiences art that is relatable and resonant. She certainly accomplishes all of that. While Stories We Tell is by no means a perfect documentary, it is a film that transfixes audiences from start all the way to its playful, poignant end.
There is no question that Polley is a fantastic filmmaker. She’s a prolific writer who has a really great eye for what looks and feels great on screen. There’s something new and refreshing about Stories We Tell that separates it from other documentaries. It feels polished, but still personal; elaborate, and yet intimate. In her quest for truth in storytelling, Polley shows that even in earnest, there are always inconsistencies and inevitable wanderings from designated paths. Polley also had a good ear for the right musical accompaniment to go with the story she was telling. Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” playing during the opening scenes, for instance, established an indelible mood of nostalgia that fit perfectly with the film’s theme.
I really liked seeing things said earlier in the film making their way back into the story like echoes. That manner of coming around full circle lent an air of weight and significance to the material. For example, one of the things that Polley points out is that while reminiscence may feel fond, often when we think we’re focusing on something in particular, we always seem to end up drifting far off from what we really meant to hone in on. This is mirrored through Michael Polley’s sharing of his style of filmmaking, wherein he recounts how, when taking videos, he tends to let the camera drift off to some other uninteresting object right when the subjects’ faces start to get in focus. This may be interpreted as a playful metaphor for the diversions we create when we get carried away telling a story, or during the realization that we may have shared too much.
While the first half of the film flows beautifully and is edited artfully, the second half is a bit all over the place, which is interesting because it almost goes back to Harry Gulkin’s critical analysis of Polley’s project. Gulkin complains that telling all sides of a story, despite the filmmaker’s best intentions, neglects to take into account that sometimes all sides of the story only serve to convolute instead of clarify. Polley sticks to a narrative fairly well in the first half, but becomes distracted by her own method in the second, spending an unnecessary amount of time talking about her process and showing her behind the camera directing or even interacting with her subjects. While I like that Polley didn’t feel like she had to adhere to certain documentary standards, I found some of her attempts at making her film unique the opposite of self-effacing. I understand wanting to impart to audiences the intent behind her process but I felt it was unnecessary because the material spoke for itself quite clearly. In this regard, there was a need for editing in the second half of the film that was probably hindered by the concern with being as inclusive of all material as possible. Since this was a personal venture, it’s understandable how difficult it might have been to edit down from a wealthy tapestry of information. But for the purposes of film, it needed to be trimmed of fat as much as possible.
That said, however, Stories We Tell was a thoroughly enjoyable film. There was certainly a tale that needed to be told, and it was done so in a remarkable fashion that will undoubtedly impress audiences. Showbiz families are just so interesting to watch on screen, and the Polley family sure had a history that was larger than life. The drama and tension in this documentary was as riveting as any feature film. It was thought-provoking, too; it certainly made me curious about my own family history, the unique way each family tells stories to each other, what we choose to keep as secrets and how and when we decide to share them.