Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) is one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of the last decade. It is certainly an experimental and quite dense experience. But, at least on first watch, there are some aspects certainly lacking.
Part of the issue with the film is that it is so small scale. What Polley is telling here is essentially a piece of family history. A moderately interesting one sure, but there are similar tales of family secrets in many many families I think. The emotional volume of the film never really reaches any great heights either. The director admits during the film that she started out making this piece just for herself. It shows too, with this feeling almost more like an academic self-reflection rather than a feature doco. This subject matter makes it difficult for the film to really differentiate itself and justify the investment. Much of what is going on is interesting. But it is far too slow in its delivery and too small scale. The film really struggles to exceed feeling like a pretty standard familial tale and I don’t think it ever achieves that. At least on a surface level, there is a big focus on memory, about the differing ways in which people recall the same bents. Similarly Polley reflects on the storytelling process occasionally, but this is not a focus throughout the entirety of the film.
It is easy to point out and discuss the fact that Stories We Tell is a film concerned with notions of storytelling and memory. But the thing is, I’m not so sure those things are really there. The ideas bookend the film, are more of a focus at either end. Through the middle though they seem to be less of a concern, with the film just focusing on a mildly interesting family story. One of the more interesting stylistic choices that Polley makes in the film is revealing the artifice of filmmaking. On occasion we see visible sound recording equipment or cameras, drawing attention to the fact that this is a story being crafted, not an immersive truth. Something borne out even further by a late ‘twist’ concerning some of the footage. The experimentation or toying with form is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. It starts with the film’s opening stages, featuring talking heads with only first names provided, not context for who the person is or what perspective they are coming to their testimony from. Though whilst interesting, this affectation is unnecessarily oblique, making it too hard to discern the differing relationships.
Verdict: At some point in Stories We Tell, someone remarks that it’s “a great, great story”. Only I’m not so sure it actually is. It’s an ok film, with some interesting ideas around memory and storytelling philosophy that are not enough of a focus. Which serves to make this slow film even more frustrating. These issues are also only amplified by the fact that it is an exceptionally dense film to take in on first watch. Schooner of Carlton Draught