Just when you think you have the format of genre all figured out, there comes along a film that toys with its structure either to great success, or damning failure. The former is true of Sarah Polley’s 2012 film Stories We Tell, a mesmerising documentary that seems to revolve around the life, loves, and flamboyant character of Polley’s mother Diane, as told by her family and friends.
Interestingly, Polley wastes no time in confidently defying typical documentary convention, with shots revealing the cameras and lighting being prepared as we see primary “storytellers” being situated within the shot, reminding audiences from the beginning that this is a film. This breaking of the fourth wall, along with Polley’s informal approach to interviewing, makes her storytellers feel more like individuals with their own personalities and views, rather than a bunch of talking heads there only to regurgitate facts.
However, I find that the true genius of this documentary is the way in which Polley allows the narrative to unfold. Uncovering her mother’s past is like watching a mystery unravel, until the narrative lightly pivots in its third act, tying together, in an unexpected manner, thematic threads that ran throughout the film. Though, thanks to Polley’s clever direction, we initially view them from the context of one woman’s story as told by others. Instead, her story, or stories, becomes the focal point for the documentary’s true subject, which is the nature of storytelling itself.
The third act exemplifies this, with an interesting twist I did not expect, but I will not spoil for others, as it affects the experience as a whole. What I will say, is that Polley’s refreshing defiance of convention here ties in perfectly with her profound observations on the subjective nature of storytelling.
One of the storytellers, Harry, grants the film in the best perspective by describing how “People tend to declare themselves in terms of what they saw, in terms of what they felt, in terms of what they remembered, and in terms of their loyalties.” Polley’s film does not just present this perspective as its theme, it embodies it, with the added melancholy of sensing that the director is grasping at memories that are not her own, of a mother who died while she was quite young.
I cannot say enough about Stories We Tell without saying too much, so I will finish by saying only this: it is a powerful, moving film that manages to convey so much in less than two hours, and it is rare to find a documentary emanating such dramatic flair while there is this level of personal attachment to the subject.