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Film Analysis:“Stories We tell” by Sarah Polley

Updated on July 5, 2017


Stories we tell is a documentary film directed and written by a Canadian Movie director, Sarah Polley. The film was produced by Canada’s National Film Board in 2012. In this film, Sarah Polley explores the buried secrets about her family and one big secret that involve her own identity. The center of the film is Sarah’s parents Diane Polley and Michael, but is particularly pointed at her mother Diane, who is believed to have passed on about 20 years ago. The film is set to uncover whether or not Sarah was a product of an affair between her mother and another producer, Harry Gulkin. The film integrates several interviews between Sarah and her siblings, family friends, her father and other relatives.

The interviews required participants to narrate the story of their lives exactly as it was, and it was intriguing for Polley to discover that everyone had their own versions of the story. This led her to brainstorm and come up with this great idea to film the interviews and document them. She states this in one of her blogs published on the website of the National Film Board by saying that she decided to make a film concerning the need to tell stories, to understand them, own them, and have them heard. Additionally, she notes that documenting made her hysterical, and that they pushed vanity to another level and in the process make it feel like therapy rather than filmmaking. In this regard, we can conclude that Sarah Polley wanted to construct a reality through stories told by her family and friends while drawing her facts from the truth and from invention. The subsequent part analyzes in detail Sarah Polley’s film examining its styling and visual content, effects and significance.


“Stories we tell”, through its convoluted structure, scrutinizes the abstract nature of truth, narratives and memories in form of footages. The camera is pointed to itself to evaluate the implication of its specific story. The most immediate part of Stories we tell tends to examine the family of Sarah Polley, specifically her mum’s life and death, evident I the interviews. The film presents a footage of the past and more importantly, it observes then documents the steps taken in its creation. In this light, it is a documentary that documents the story of its creation. The film is structured in various cinematic parts which are hard to differentiate since they are interconnected even though they display different visual content.

The first part is fundamentally the footage that resembles a documentary, which consists of interviews between Sarah and her family and friends. In this part the lens is focused meaning the camera is static. The elementary cinematography and framing are conventional. The second part encompasses real life family footage (old), which was assumedly shot by Sarah’s father, basing on the occurrences. However, at the end, the audience learns that the actors were Peter Evans and Rebecca Jenkins who acted Michael and Diane Polley respectively. This suggests that in a way, some real-life footages were re-enacted. For the second part, the camera appeared to be hand held as it was mobile and shaky. As such, the style of shooting in this part was informal. People’s looks are muddled and filtered intentionally to make it unclear and imperfect and as a result appear old and vintage to represent the past. The third part is a meta-narrative (story beyond the story) of the film. This basically is the story about how the documentary was made and it documents the process of its filming. This is a creative approach and is resonant with the works of great authors such as William Greaves.

The third part appears out of focus and intentionally blurry and the scenes are unclear, thick-grained and muddled. This stylistic future suggests how the director wants the film to appear to the viewers. In this regard, we can say Polley made a documentary which makes use both Hollywood and documentary techniques. She uses actors to control footage and make it appear like the famous “home movies”. This is due to the fact that most people tend to believe that home movies are less true as compared to documentaries which use standard techniques for documenting. Sarah edited the film in a way to suggest the events were actually happening in real-life and in real time. She used the actors to represent her characters during some periods of their lives. This is an astonishing styling technique which makes the film even more fascinating.

The film presents numerous notable virtues, which include its formal design and its humor. However, the most outstanding and commendable quality is the great touch of personal ethics which surrounds Sarah’s choices of filmmaking. The movies is exploitative but revelatory, even though it hints more familiar points, especially those by Michael in Voice-over. As the movie nears the end, it comes out as an autobiographical tale as the director does not make it a gratifying representation of a woman searching for her origin. Rather, she explores the concept of storytelling itself and the difference between life lived. Even so, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the film represents relativism. Each of the interviewed people have their own memory of Polley’s mother, but all of them stick to only the generally accepted facts concerning her life and death. Ms. Polley however is moved by how every one of these people present their memories with humor, regret, love or self-interest. It is extremely moving to watch the reactions of Sarah Polley as she watches her step dad talk about her mother and their life before things went sideways. Nonetheless, she knows that for her, it’s not about exploring her family and its history to resolve dead issues as do other filmmakers. For her case, she knows it’s never all about her.

The film has a sophisticated structure with the cinematic parts built in it. The first part is the documentary of an emotional story of a family which proceeds to unveil upsetting truths and hidden secrets through interviews. Throughout the footage of the rest of the film, which reveals the memories of a person who passed on a long time ago, it feels like it brings a dead person back to life. Sarah says at one point in the movie, “It’s like trying to bring someone to life through people’s stories on them. This intricate composition of the film deliberately replicates how ambiguous the story is in real-life. Joanna, Sarah’s sister mentioned this when she exclaims that one never gets to an answer.

The film traps the minds of the viewers and makes them relate the occurrences of the movie to their real lives. She uses her mother Diane to make the viewers reflect their lives. In essence, it’s a common story which has a common thread of narrative that is familiar to everyone. Diane is depicted as a trapped woman in a way. She craved much more in life than simply being a wife or mother, even though her traditional responsibilities tailored her. We learn that life isn’t as simple as it appears. Especially for Diane, when we learn about her, and her secrets, the stereotypical narrative thread disappears in thin air. Although Diane appeared to be high-spirited and liberal, Life was messy to her as it is with all of us. But stories which are repeated tend to neat things up and iron the wrinkles out. For Polley, she decided to keep the wrinkles. At the end of the film, the viewers feel like there is a lot they still don’t know concerning Diane. This leaves them in suspense but also teaches them that there is more than meets the eye in every situation.


To the larger extend, an analysis or summary of the film hardly captures the real experience one can get while watching Stories we tell. No matter how much we write, it will only be a version of the drama and mystery in the film. Sarah Polley is however, not interested in the plot of the film, which many term as very strong with boundless joy and great sadness. In this film, Sarah is interested in the telling of the stories and how people, selves and truth can be represented or told. Nonetheless, the film shines a light on every viewers’ life as they watch it.


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