Background

The genesis of Stories We Tell began when a Toronto journalist contacted Sarah Polley in 2007 to verify a scoop about her family history. After convincing him not to publish the story, Polley decided to tell it herself by interviewing relatives and peers for a documentary. The secretive production evolved into an experimentation with film form when National Film Board (NFB) producer Anita Lee encouraged Polley to create a collective portrait of the ways in which families share and remember stories.

Polley has called Stories We Tell the hardest project of her career. She and her crew shot the interviews between three editing sessions, during which the layering of the film’s themes and storylines became deeper and more complex. The production was so emotionally exhausting that Polley took a year off from it to make her 2011 drama Take This Waltz. Stories We Tell remained secretive until its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, when Polley unveiled its history in a blog post on the NFB’s website.

Synopsis

Sarah Polley explores her family history as relatives and family friends tell differing versions of a story about the identity of her biological father, which began as a recurring joke but turned out to be true. Polley investigates a secret held by her late mother, Diane, as she pieces together the contradictory accounts. The film begins with the premise of exploring Diane’s past, but as Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, narrates the story, Polley begins to focus on the act of storytelling itself, using fragments of home movies and family interviews to rewrite fiction into truth, and vice versa.

Analysis

Stories We Tell solidified Polley’s status as one of Canada’s pre-eminent filmmakers. This intimate, non-judgemental and genre-bending film continues her exploration of the awkward messiness of love and infidelity on display in her dramas Away from Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011). Using fragments of her family’s stories, Polley plays with perception and twists documentary form by mixing contemporary digital images, grainy Super 8 footage, authentic home movies and staged recreations. The mixed form challenges the presumed truth of documentary, while the different layers of narrative question the supposed authenticity of narrative itself, asking who, if anyone, has the right to be a storyteller. The film celebrates the act of sharing stories and shows that something intimate and personal can be universal.

Critical Reception

Stories We Tell was hailed by many critics for its bravery and artistic complexity. PostMedia’s Katherine Monk named it “a stroke of artistic genius” in a five-star review. The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell called it “extraordinary in every way, from its postmodern structure to the raw emotion of its carefully revealed family secrets.” Brian D. Johnson of Maclean’s magazine called it “a brilliant film: an enthralling, exquisitely layered masterpiece.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times praised Polley’s balance of intimacy and openness, saying, “what’s life-changing for Sarah Polley turns out to be life-changing for the audience as well.” IndieWIRE’s Eric Kohn, like many critics, said Stories “marks the finest of Polley's filmmaking skills.”

However, Polley’s effort to extend her personal story into a collective one proved divisive. The London Telegraph’s Robbie Collin criticized the film’s thesis, saying, “history and memory fall broadly into line, and the much-vaunted ambiguity simply never turns up.” In a two-and-a-half-star review, the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen described Stories as “technically accomplished,” but with a “smug patina of self-congratulation.” He wrote that the film oscillates “from intriguing to dull, revealing to repetitious, frank to disingenuous, and moving to manipulative.” The reactions of some critics drew parallels with Take This Waltz and its tale of a wife fleeing an unfulfilling marriage, although Polley denied that her mother’s story consciously influenced Waltz.

Honours and Legacy

Stories We Tell grossed just under $2 million at the North American box office and landed on more than 100 year-end “Best of” lists, including those published by the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail (Liam Lacey). It was also named to TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list. The film earned numerous Canadian and international awards, including the 2013 Feature Documentary prize at the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards. It was shortlisted in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars and was favoured by many to be a frontrunner for the award, but was not nominated.

In 2015, it was named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in a poll conducted by TIFF; it was both the most recent film and the only one directed by a woman to make the list. In October 2016, Stories We Tell was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history in a poll of 200 media professionals conducted by TIFF, Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise and The Cinematheque in Vancouver in anticipation of the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.

See also: Sarah Polley (Profile); Sarah Polley’s Stunning Directorial Debut; Canadian Feature Films.

Awards

Best Feature Length Documentary (Sarah Polley, Anita Lee), Canadian Screen Awards (2013)

Best Documentary, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (2012)

Best Canadian Film, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (2012)

Grand Prix, Festival du nouveau cinéma (2012)

Best Achievement in Direction (Sarah Polley), CinemaEye Honors (2013)

The Unforgettables (Michael Polley), CinemaEye Honors (2013)

Allan King Award for Excellence in Documentary (Sarah Polley, Anita Lee, David Forsyth), Directors Guild of Canada Awards (2013)

Best Documentary/Non-fiction Film, Los Angeles Film Critics Awards (2013)

Best Documentary, National Board of Review Awards (2013)

Best Non-Fiction Film, New York Film Critics Awards (2013)

Best Documentary Screenplay (Sarah Polley), Writers Guild of America Awards (2014)

Suggested Reading

Zoë Druick, Projecting Canada: Government Policy and Documentary Film at the National Film Board of Canada (Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007).

Richard Porton, “Family Viewing: An Interview with Sarah Polley,” Cineaste (summer 2013): 36–40.