STORIES WE TELL Examines Perception and the Way We Process Confessional Cinema

Sarah Polley's documentary peels back layers of history to reveal a singular story at the heart of her family's memory - and how we digest cinema.

Stories We Tell is nothing short of brilliant -- by the end of the film, one walks away feeling as though Sarah Polley has pulled off an incredible magic trick. Like the layers of story peeled back to reveal the central truth at the heart of the film (if there can be such a thing, but Polley approximates something like it as best she can), Polley peels back the layers of conventional storytelling and filmmaking to help us understand the way we process the more confessional and personal qualities of cinema. Without spoiling the film for you -- because you really should see it as soon as possible -- Polley's family has long harbored a secret of sorts, though it's only really a secret because it's never been shared so publicly. The secret, regarding Polley's mother, is slowly revealed as Polley interviews her siblings, her father (actor Michael Polley), and friends of her mother, while her father provides a narration of events from his point of view. And then Polley shows us how that story affected everyone individually and as a whole, calling to mind the way a quilt is made up of pieces of fabric, which are each made up of millions of threads, which are similarly made up of their own myriad fibers.

The story itself is captivating, and Polley acts as both archaeologist and anthropologist, showing us the ways that different people perceive and relay the same story. Some are those who were directly involved, while others were only witness to or merely slightly affected by it. And those people -- her family and friends of the family -- serve to help Polley draw a parallel: with every story there are many facets, and through the subjective lens of the storyteller, we are given the facets they deem most important, just as if you were to ask an audience member about the film they just saw, they might give you a slightly different interpretation or re-telling of what they witnessed. What Polley does here is show us how those she interviews are very much like us, the audience, in that the way they perceive the events is mostly the same, with variations according to their own subjective perception. It's those subtle -- and sometimes not-so-subtle -- variations in the way the story is re-told that allow us to understand the difference in perspective.

As for the main storytellers, those who were directly involved in the story Polley wishes to tell, we could draw a parallel between them and writers and directors -- these are people who are choosing their version of the truth and confess to us, the viewer, what they experienced; it's up to us what we take from it. For every audience member, there will undoubtedly be parts of this story that resonate more or less, or moments that hit an emotional nerve based on our own personal experiences -- and that's the beauty of cinema, isn't it? This idea that a story can mean something different to everyone who watches it because of their own stories. The teller tells us a story that has some kernel of their own emotional or personal experience, and we mentally deconstruct that confession, consuming the parts that are relevant to us, much the same way our eyes refract the moving image on screen to relay the information to our brains.

There's a sort of visual reveal late in the film that solidifies this idea that we are at the mercy of the storyteller, and Polley reminds us that, even though Stories We Tell contains many storytellers, it's Polley herself who is ultimately controlling it, and we will believe her version of events as she decides them; whatever she tells -- and in that one breathtaking moment, shows -- us, we will accept as truth. As her father notes, every one of the people interviewed would edit the hours of footage down to something different -- at the core would be the same idea, that we all tell the same story differently based on our individual experience and perspective, but each version would be slightly altered to varying degrees.

With every person involved in an event or series of events, there are several different accounts of the same story, and we can never know what truly transpired unless we were a fly on the wall, following the players from stage to stage (and even the idea of a fly on the wall is present in the film, albeit literally and sort of tangentially). And then there's the notion of trust, and choosing which version of the story to believe based on the integrity of the storyteller. Trust is such a nebulous concept because it's very similar to the idea of faith, in that you choose to believe in the answer to a question to which you cannot possibly know the answer. The storyteller gives us their version of the truth, and we must decide whether we accept this truth to be accurate, and we form a relationship with the storyteller just like any other relationship built on trust -- which is to say any.

We trust Polley because she is playing fair by giving everyone involved a platform to tell their version of events, and at its core, this is really Polley's story to tell. And what a beautifully fascinating and incredibly moving journey it is.

Related Articles