Stories We Tell (Canada 2012)

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.

At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to transcribe). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley, an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material, joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.

Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.

It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8  – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.

The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.


  1. Rona

    I agree with Roy totally – this is a substantial achievement. I’ve stuck down a big comment which I hope complements what’s already said. One abiding aspect is what escapes from Polley’s documentary as well as what is constructed and deliberate. I think she is comfortably complicit in allowing that to happen by the styles she chose, as detailed above.

    It’s a genuinely fascinating story, which has its dramatic twists. However, just like her fiction features, it’s the people and the emotions expressed that Polley brings out. Her previous work shows her extremely deft at handling understatement from her actors – Michelle Williams in Take this Waltz and Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie in Away from Her – all performances which don’t lose emotion because they are so withheld. You are reminded of this in Stories we Tell with a neat (repeated) motif. In directing her father, she often tells him to ‘take the line back’ in his narration i.e. to reduce the expression he is giving it so as not to ‘over-egg’ the dialogue. Her choice to include these scenes – of her directing the action – as well as including her off-camera voice debating with her siblings about what the intention of the film is are recognisable traits of the self-reflexive documentary. You can’t help thinking of My Winnipeg (just because it offers such a contrast in approach to a similar idea from fellow Canadian Guy Maddin) but strangely, also, Capturing the Friedmans – not in the kind of story (it’s nothing like that) but in the unpredictability of what unravels when you turn the cameras on yourselves. Polley works with those areas of unpredictability effectively. Whilst clearly wanting to point out that nobody has the ownership of the truth of a situation, what was interesting by the end is she does distinctly impose her perspective and her emotions on it. Most importantly, the film itself is an incredibly moving testimony to Polley’s relationship to her father who she places at the centre of the storytelling process. That left me able to feel sorry for Harry Gulkin (who has a crucial part in this family story), who I felt had his story told, but not on his own terms. I liked a film that could allow that kind of emotional complexity into it. But, as with the ambiguities present in Take this Waltz, Polley is not afraid to let those kinds of competing emotions room.

    How should we ‘tag’ Polley? Woman film-maker, Canadian? I found myself returning to one film in her acting career, The Sweet Hereafter, also about what the truth is and who is telling it, in which the young actor gives a strong, understated performance in Atom Egoyan’s poetic mystery story. (A fellow Canadian who also appreciates mysteries). . I certainly see her as the right choice to adapt Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace as she is currently doing – not because she’s a Canadian or a woman, but because she has the ability with a puzzle narrative to leave it ambiguous whilst fully realised in terms of character told with great empathy.

    A fully-grown film-maker – I can’t wait – Alias Grace or otherwise – for what Polley does next.


    • Roy Stafford

      I was sure that you would like this Rona! I haven’t watched any Guy Maddin, but I know I should. I can’t understand why Sarah Polley hasn’t received the level of critical attention that she deserves in the UK. I just hope that people will find the DVD/online film.


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