Through its intricate structure, Stories We Tell (2012) by Sarah Polley (playing in The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica, and eXistenZ) examines the elusive nature of narratives, memories, and truth. The documentary points the camera to itself to analyze the meaning of its own story. The meta-narrative composition explores levels of storytelling unified by the larger theme of storytelling itself.
“What would you say this documentary is really about,” John Buchan, Sarah’s half-brother, is asking her in front of the camera. “Am I breaking the fourth wall here? Turn the camera around.”
Stories in Stories We Tell
Because of the movie’s complex structure, breaking it down to several “levels” or “dimensions” (used interchangeably in this post) can be helpful for analysis—the goal of this Stories We Tell review. Note that “dimensions/levels” is not an official label, but simply used for the sake of this post. (Also note that “this post” and “this Stories We Tell review” are a form of self-reference in a post about a movie about self-reference!)
On the most immediate level, the movie examines the Polley family story, and particularly the life and death of Dianne Polley, as told in interviews by family members and people who knew her.
On a deeper level, the film presents footage from the family’s past.
On a yet deeper level, Stories We Tell observes and documents the process of its own creation—it becomes a self-referential documentary that tells the story of its making.
The narratives of the three levels are interconnected and often hard to tell apart because the movie emphasizes ambiguity. Visually, however, a helpful guide are the different cinematic looks for the three different story dimensions.
Level one is essentially the documentary-like footage, consisting mostly of the interviews. The camera here is mainly static; the lens is in focus. The framing and the basic cinematography are “conventional.” However, a notable exception to the static camera is a complex 180-degrees panning shot with the voice-over of Michael who mentions mirrors as a metaphor for illusion. The shot (at about 20:30 min. into the movie) begins with a mirror, in the far corner of which the outline of a sitting person can be seen, and after a long pan ends with a back shot of Michael, who is revealed as the sitting person, right after his voice-over has said “what you really look like.” This short sequence captures the essence of the movie’s theme of self-reflective observation.
Level two consists of “real-life” old footage of the family, which the audience is made to assume was mostly shot by Michael, based on his recollections how obsessed he was with “gripping the camera” and his peculiar shooting style—the camera drifting away from the people and the action. The ending credits of the movie, however, list the actors Rebecca Jenkins and Peter Evans “as” Dianne and Michael Polley, which suggests at least some of the “real-life” footage was re-enacted.
The camera for dimension two is mostly hand-held, shaky, and mobile; the shooting style is informal. The look is intentionally filtered, muddled, containing black strips and clarity imperfections to make it appear vintage and old—representing the past.
Dimension three is the meta-narrative of Stories We Tell. It is essentially the story of the making of the documentary itself and films the process of its filming—the tautology is appropriate since it depicts the documentary-within-documentary of Stories We Tell. This creative approach is reminiscent of William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
The cinematic look for dimension three is intentionally blurry and often out of focus. The scenes appear thick-grained, muddled and unclear. An important visual distinction from level two is the lack of old and vintage-like qualities. Dimension three of Stories We Tell is the self-reflective and unifying theme of the entire documentary—a story about the nature of storytelling and narratives. The theme is repeatedly mentioned in the movie itself, as well in the Stories We Tell official website.
Visually, dimension three takes up the least running time, but its theme of self-reflection is central to the film. Scenes from dimension three often include film’s props such as cameras or lighting equipment. Dimension three often presents an alternative point of view (points of view in narratives is another key theme for Stories We Tell) for a scene from dimension one. An example is this dimension-three medium-distance blurry shot of a figure in a chair that is slowly zooming in, followed by a dimension-one close-up clear shot of Michael, who is apparently the blurry figure from the previous shot. The dimension-three shot includes a film prop, probably a microphone or lighting equipment:
Another example of the same effect is a scene with Joanna Polley. At first she is seen tightly framed through dimension one; the very next shot she is in the same position seen through the wider and more distant viewpoint of dimension three (dialogue and action flow smoothly). The second shot frames Polley together with film staff and film equipment, before panning to the left and revealing Sarah Polley and cinematographer Iris Ng behind the camera that is shooting dimension one.
Discussing at a conference at Toronto International Film Festival how the idea for Stories We Tell was conceived, Sarah Polley remembers “sobbing uncontrollably” after watching a short documentary by Iris Ng about her (Ng’s) family. “And there was something about somebody looking at their family and, you know, looking with Super 8, that has such immediate nostalgia and power.” At first, Sarah Polley and Ng filmed an interview with Michael Polley without being sure it was going to be made into film. Sarah said before making Stories We Tell she did not know how to make a documentary and remembers writing a 300-page script because she was felt not prepared for shooting and the documentary approach to movies: “…that idea of not being able to control everything.”
Stories We Tell has an intricate structure of narrative levels that questions its own factual accuracy. On one level, the documentary is a poignant family story that reveals unexpected secrets through the interviews with the Polley family.
Through the Super 8 footage revealing memories of the dead Dianne Polley, “in many ways, you know, it’s like trying to bring someone to life through people’s stories of them,” as Sarah says in the movie. The complex composition of the movie intentionally reflects the real-life ambiguity of the story. “You don’t ever get to an answer,” Joanna says at some point.
Sarah’s role in the movie is investigative, self-effacing and unsentimental. Instead of scripting her one-sided account of the family’s story, the director conceived a multi-dimensional picture about storytelling, discrepancies, and “about the fact that the truth about the fact is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down. And many of our stories, when we don’t take proper time to do research about our pasts, which is almost always the case, end up with shifts and fictions in them.”