Review: Stories We Tell

8 years ago
Aidan Johnson

Stories We Tell is a Canadian documentary by Sarah Polley based on her family and its complexities. Although it is very well put together, being the length it was, it tended to drag. The film mainly focuses on interviews of key people in the family (excepting those who are deceased). However, the documentary explores more than just a scandalous family and the actions they engaged in. It goes on to explore the nature of truth, through the depiction of the same events from different perspectives. Thought provoking, it is an interesting watch, if a bit long.


Polley’s family has a convoluted history, especially in regards to her mother, Diane. Over the first half of the documentary, Diane’s past is revealed in a fragmented fashion. Despite her prominence during the first half of the movie, she made very few appearances later as the focus was transferred to her daughter Sarah, although her impact could be felt throughout the entire film, due to the implications of her actions. In this regard, Polley explores, partially at least, the impact that someone can have through their actions, even after they are long dead. The obvious example of this is the fact that Sarah is revealed to be sired by an extra-marital affair. This impact is the main focus of the film, and how it affected Sarah, Diane, and others connected to the events is explored throughout the documentary. Whilst there is some footage of Diane in her youth, a lot of video was shot after the fact especially for the film. However, the effects and filters used made it very believable that these videos were from that era.

The film opens with a quote from the father (non-biological as it turns out) about how stories don’t seem like stories to the partakers during the events of the story. And that sets out the philosophical tone of the documentary really. The documentary is as much an exploration into what constitutes truth, and reactions to events, as much as it is a memoir. It shows different interpretations on the nature of documentaries as well, as Sarah’s biological father wanted the film to be primarily about him and his relationship with Diane and Sarah, whereas Sarah wished to include everybody that she could. This divergence is explored when the biological father expresses his opinion, that “the point of art is to expose the truth” and that the only two people who know the truth in this scenario are himself and Diane. The other exploration on the nature of truth relative to experiences is explored by her non-biological father, who reminds Sarah that her editing of the film itself is going to create a bias, and alter the truth as it will be shown. Overall, the philosophical elements of the film make it quite interesting.

On a negative note, the length of the film became taxing. Initially, this was fine, as it added depth to those who were involved, and gave back-story to the characters, primarily Diane. However, as the film went on, it began to drag considerably. Although all of the footage was important, it could have been presented in a more succinct fashion. In addition, there were two or three places where the audience were led to believe the end had occurred, and be emotionally filled, only to have a new scene drag them back to their seats. Even though each new scene was nicely done and moving towards the end, it became a little tedious.

Overall, The Stories We Tell is an interesting documentary. Whilst it does get a bit drawn out, it is still emotional and powerful, dealing with family scandals and emotions. It also delves into philosophical ideas, which are thought provoking and intellectually engaging. On top of their content, they are portrayed in a mature and engaging manner, and make the documentary a truly enjoyable one. 

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