Manuel Betancourt

Stories We Tell, or How Polley’s latest has been haunting me for weeks

June 24, 2013 · in Film

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a comforting, tears-soaked hug from someone you didn’t know you could care so much about.

— Manuel Betancourt (@atweetnextdoor) May 19, 2013

Stories We Tell
Dir. Sarah Polley

I am in love with Sarah Polley’s latest hybrid of a film. It’s not quite a documentary though it relies on talking-heads and it’s not quite a fiction film though actors are employed throughout to advance a narrative story. Instead, Polley blends the two to follow the seemingly asinine (and narcissistic) question of “Who am I? Where do I come from?” refracted through her own family’s recollections of her mother. The argument and title of the film may be asking “What is our shared history, let alone our identity but a collection of re-told stories?” but Polley makes clear that these aren’t merely stories but films. She might as well have titled it Films We Shoot.

The film’s first moments, where we watch Polley’s siblings nervously and self-consciously get ready to be interviewed, make the conceit of the film (join me in going down the rabbit hole that is my family history) feel less navel-gazing than it sounds. Instead, it manages to situate us as welcome guests. What it also does, by showing us the very framework of the piece (we see microphones being adjusted, lights being rearranged as well as Polley herself behind the camera), is break apart the wall between spectator and film. Throughout the film we are witnesses to recreated family memories shot as if on camcorders; we are privy to private spaces via the mediation of old-school family film aesthetics.


This is perhaps what fascinated me most about the film. Pulled between being documenter and documented, viewer and filmmaker, Polley — despite attempts at keeping a distance — finds herself at the center of her project, unable to divorce her process from the very object she’s creating. As we learn more about her mom, and we excavate the family history that threatens to pull Polley away from her own sense of family, we see her more confidently asserting herself as a filmmaker. This is nowhere more palpable than in the recording booth scenes with her dad. Reading out from his own script, Polley ostensibly uses her dad’s own voice-over to give her documentary the guise of a recorded oral history yet during those moments she constantly asks her father to stop and re-record a sentence, stripping the framework of the film right before our eyes.

That vulnerability, wrapped up as it is in meta-filmmaking is what makes this such a wondrous film. Polley shows us the puppet strings of (fiction and nonfiction) filmmaking at work, and yet elicits an emotional response from her audience that necessarily depend on those strings. Though the last shot of the film is as pure comedy as you get, I’ll admit to have been moved to tears by the end of the film: Polley actually got me to laugh through my tears. I can think of no better endorsement than that. A