Review: Stories We Tell (2013)

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Directed by – Sarah Polley
Written by – Sarah Polley & Michael Polley
Narrated by – Michael Polley

This is less a film than it is an intricate examination into the art of storytelling, told in the form of an intimate documentary. Written and directed by Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead, Mr. Nobody), it begins as a slight and seemingly mawkish insight into the life of Ms Polley’s family, told via archive footage and interviews, occasionally interspersed with her Father’s narration. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that things are nowhere near as simplistic as they seem and that Polley has crafted a courageous, personal and highly affecting exploration of how we tell stories and how our interpretation of events is influenced by our upbringing and our nostalgic view of history.

I don’t want to talk about the plot of the film too much because I don’t think it’s all that relevant. What I want to talk about, however, is the manner in which Polley uses a deeply personal story about her family to get us – the audience – to think about how we react to and view the events that happen in our own lives. Polley makes the unusual but wise decision to give all of the participants in her documentary equal weighting; those at the centre of the drama get no more and no less of an input than those on the outskirts and, as such, we get multiple insights into the tale that sometimes contradict each other. Random relatives tell us how the events that unfolded affected them personally, and a number of them claim additional knowledge or greater insight into the drama than others. Sometimes no-one can be sure who did or didn’t say something, and every now and then someone will drop a bombshell that sends the story in a new direction. In most documentaries this would be a major problem but here it adds to the complexity and intimacy of the story and makes it all the more engaging.

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Allow me to ramble for a bit; we all have personal stories, we all have secrets and we all have arguments amongst our friends and families about whose version of events is the truth. 99% of the time, the truth turns out to be an amalgamation of everyone’s version of events, with no one person having a monopoly on what really happened. If Stories we Tell does anything, it captures that peculiarity quite brilliantly. The filtration of stories, from one source to the next to the next – like a game of Chinese Whispers in perpetual motion – is something we experience every single day, probably without ever realising. When someone tells you something – especially when they’ve already heard it second-hand – you can guarantee that some of the details, whether it the characters, the outcome or even the “plot” itself, will have changed. It’s not that people lie – at least not consciously anyway – rather it’s that we can’t help but put our own spin or interpretation on things. There is no such thing as a neutral story; bias will always creep in somewhere, and there will always be discrepancies and contradictions in each individual telling of a story. That’s what makes the art of storytelling so fascinating and that is exactly what this film understands.

Stories we Tell – to put the above into some form of context – is a documentary about Polley’s discovery that the man she thought was her Father isn’t, and that her biological Father is a man that her Mother met while working away from home for a few months. It’s a huge revelation for any family, not least one as large and as seemingly loving as Polley’s, and it opens up a whole range of secrets and emotions that have gone unspoken for decades. The point, however, isn’t to dredge up the past and engage in mud-slinging and point-scoring. No, the point of the film is to demonstrate two things; firstly, that talking and getting things down is a great way to come to terms with something and secondly that no one interpretation of the events is ever accurate. The purpose of the film seems, at least in part, to be a form of therapy for Polley (and, to a lesser extent, the man who she spent years believing to be her Father) but that’s not all it is. It’s also a film about love, respect, betrayal, family and loyalty; it’s a universal film with a universal message and it’s one that we can all relate to in one sense or another.

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The beauty of Stories we Tell is not just that it is full of subtext and meaning but also that – as a piece of narrative cinema – it’s hugely engaging. Polley’s sense of direction is masterful and she manages to mould a piece in which each character, each plot line and each revelation is complex and intriguing. She proves that fact really can be much more interesting than fiction and that a simple tale of a family that learns something new – but one that, refreshingly enough, doesn’t resort to crisis or melodrama in the process – can touch everybody in different ways. Though the circumstances are unique to her, the film explores the idea that we all have stories to tell, that every family and every person is only as interesting as the life that they lead and that all of us approach such stories in our own unique way.

The film isn’t problem-free, however, and there are certain elements about it that I found grating. For a start, it’s too long; the story is interesting but it doesn’t need to be 110 minutes long. Secondly, the revelation towards the end about the manner in which certain parts have been filmed struck me as slightly unnecessary; the abstract, almost “meta” atmosphere of the film worked and it didn’t need to be explained. It must have been obvious to everyone watching that the Polley family hadn’t filmed everything that had happened and I don’t think we needed the closing revelation.

Nevertheless, Stories we Tell is a deep, heartfelt and entertaining exploration of storytelling, filmmaking and the personal nature of the stories we all tell. Polley is to be commended for such a brave and uncensored look at the truth about her family, and I’m thankful for such a stark insight into how she came to be the person we all know today. If you’re at all interested in storytelling and the unreliability of how people relay information, Stories we Tell is well worth a watch. It combines the metaphorical with the literal in a fresh, intelligent and engaging way and it tells a personal tale to which the audience can all relate.

For me, Stories we Tell is one of the best documentaries of 2013 and I think everyone should give it a go.

★★★½

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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