Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’: A Radical Act

Movie poster for Stories We Tell


Written by Stephanie Rogers.
We live in an age now when things seem … less “real” to me. Facebook lets us put our private lives on display, and even then, it’s a version of our lives that we edit, exaggerate perhaps, and invent—all for public consumption. People become overnight stars when homemade YouTube clips go viral—often another version of an edited public performance. Our television shows, especially Reality TV—and even shows such as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance—present stories that appear to be true but are, in fact, edited for a public audience.

So, how do we define “real” anymore or, for that matter, what is “true”?

Polley and her father in Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley explores this concept in her wonderful documentary, Stories We Tell. While the film focuses on her family background and a long-kept family secret of sorts, it ultimately explores memory—how it aids and fails us, and how the act of storytelling sometimes requires us to fill in the gaps. This isn’t a new concept by any means, but Polley’s decision to tell her story through film, and to put that story on screen for a wider audience—in a society (and film industry) that consistently devalues women’s work and women’s stories—is a radical act.

Mary Jo Murphy gives some background on the film in her New York Times review:

A bit more about “the story”: Ms. Polley is the youngest of five siblings. Dad was an English actor in Toronto; Mom, an actress, had two children from a marriage before she met him. She died of cancer when Sarah was 11, and at some point after that, one or more of her much older siblings began to tease her about her paternity. Eventually she did a little investigating.

When she found her answer, and talked to her father and siblings about it, she became fascinated with how each of them was “telling the story and embellishing the story and making the story their own.” The act of telling the story, she said, “was changing the story itself.”

Polley’s father in Stories We Tell
I love the idea of the past existing as fluid, ever-changing. And Stories We Tell touches on that, reminding us that people truly do live long after their deaths—in the memories and celebrations of those most important to them. I certainly don’t mean to sentimentalize the story because it’s not a sentimental film (which isn’t to say that the audience in the theater wasn’t a weeping mess), but I want to convey that a woman making an emotionally gripping film about herself, about her mother, about motherhood even—is absolutely a radical act. Some disagree. Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote the following in his review (titled, “Stories We Tell Review: Not Worth Telling”):

Polley is making a film about her father, her late mother, her siblings. She should protect them. What she shouldn’t do is offer up the resulting feel-good whitewash to the scrutiny of a watching world. She shouldn’t force on strangers the task of sitting through this. And she shouldn’t present a work of vanity and closed-in narcissism as an exercise in soul baring, because it’s embarrassing for everybody.

Polley’s mother and father in Stories We Tell
In actuality, the most important part of this film—and what makes it feminist—is precisely its “vanity” and “closed-in narcissism.” Of course, I wouldn’t use those words to describe it—I’d say “intimacy” and “closed-in confidence”—because they play into the dominant ideology that women’s stories aren’t important. And Stories We Tell is exactly that—Sarah Polley’s story: embellished, re-enacted, unsure, important. She interviews her father(s), her siblings, her mother’s former lovers, and her mother’s friends, all while keeping herself outside the frame and directing her subjects, or “storytellers” as she calls them, to tell their individual version of events. How Polley chooses to direct the film, to edit it, to interrogate the assertions of her storytellers, and to learn from them—that is her story. And telling it is a radical act.

Leigh Kolb wrote a piece for Bitch Flicks last November called, “Female Literacy as a Historical Framework for Hollywood Misogyny” in which she suggested that, “When women finally break through and are able to tell their stories, those stories are immediately dismissed as silly and trivial.” She goes on to say:

Perhaps this bleak, largely anti-feminist landscape in Hollywood is more deliberate. If we acknowledge women’s long history of being neglected education and literacy, and that women have been repeatedly told (or observed) that their stories lack action and intrigue for a broad audience, how can this not have larger social effects? And at some point, do we come to the conclusion that these messages are what the dominant group wants?

Polley’s mother in Stories We Tell
The good news is that reviews like the one written by Mick LaSalle, who refers to Stories We Tell at one point as “the opposite of a courageous piece of work,” look ridiculous next to all the praise for the film. In fact, if we’re lucky, maybe the success of Polley’s piece will spark a larger conversation about the marginalization of women and minorities in our culture, about whose stories “deserve” to be told and who gets to tell them. This film—if “the personal is political” still means anything in the age of my multiple fake Facebook identities—needs to be seen. It deserves to be seen. It’s a film about women knowing and not knowing one another. It’s a film about forgiveness and disappointment and searching for one’s identity and place within the family. It’s about existing as both participant and observer in one’s own life. It’s about longing and loss and how we define families. It’s about the art of filmmaking itself. It’s about mistakes and motherhood and heredity and unconditional love.

And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about a woman in Hollywoodan industry that boasts less than 20% of women film directors and an ever-shrinking number of available roles for women—refusing to accept the devaluation of women’s work, getting behind a camera … and daring to tell a story. 
Sarah Polley, badass

4 Trackbacks