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Stories We Tell directed by Sarah Polley (review)
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Stories We Tell opens with an extended shot of Michael Polley (director Sarah’s father) reading out a prepared script in a recording studio, his daughter sitting opposite him. This sequence serves as a metaphor for the entire film, which focuses on the nature of storytelling. Michael began his career as an actor in Great Britain; one of his fellow students at drama school was Albert Finney. He came to Canada on a theatrical tour, where he met and married his fellow actor Diane MacMillan. The two of them lived an apparently happy life in Toronto, having four children; Michael supported his family as an insurance agent, while Diane became a casting director.

As the film unfolds, however, we learn how Diane went on a tour to Montreal and fell in love with producer Harry Gulkin (his credits include the Canadian films Lies My Father Told Me (1975) and Two Solitudes (1978)). The two of them enjoyed an intimate relationship—so close, in fact, that Diane contemplated leaving her family altogether and settling in Montreal. Through interviews with her father and Gulkin, Sarah makes a shocking discovery about her parentage: the man she called her father was not her father at all; it was Gulkin instead. No one knew about this until the results of a DNA test were announced.

In terms of plot, Stories We Tell veers uncomfortably close to melodrama, as the news spreads among Sarah’s extended family with predictably emotional consequences. What renders the film so fascinating is the way in which it is structured; through her interviews, Sarah Polley makes us aware of the presence of different versions of historical truth, shaped by individual perceptions. While Michael recognizes that his marriage went through several rocky patches, he finds it difficult to believe that Diane was prepared to put the future of her family at risk. He ends up by blaming himself and his inability to express his feelings overtly (a legacy of his British upbringing), rather than reflecting on Diane’s feelings of emotional imprisonment. Gulkin proves a reluctant interviewee: on several occasions he tells Sarah that little or nothing can be gained by bringing “the truth” out into the open. This is chiefly fueled by self-interest—as a film producer Gulkin is particularly concerned about his public image. Although prepared to admit a considerable depth of feeling for Diane, his recollections of the past are deliberately sketchy, marked by generalizations and a conscious refusal to answer Sarah’s pointed questions.

The person who experiences the biggest revaluation of her personal history is undoubtedly Sarah herself. At the beginning of the film she remains detached, listening to her family’s interviews while refraining from offering any comments. As the action proceeds, however, Sarah becomes more and more involved as she finds out more about her mother and discovers her true father’s identity. The experience of making Stories We Tell proves so life-changing that at the end she is forced to turn the tables and allow one of her family members to interview her. Such sequences are painful to watch, as we discover that the technique of interviewing is not just designed to find out more about one’s subjects, but also a process of self-discovery. The distinctions between interviewer and interviewee are dissolved as the film shows Sarah trying to come to terms with new and uncomfortable historical realities.

Stories We Tell is a valuable text for anyone interested in analyzing the relationship between film and history. In Robert Rosenstone’s formulation, it might be classified as a “New History” film that contests the metanarratives that structure historical knowledge, historical truths, or received notions. However Polley consciously repudiates any notion of metanarrative; she is more concerned with examining the close relationship between history and fiction. We are presented with a series of histories and her-stories, all of which might be deemed “truthful” in the sense that they help different members of Polley’s extended clan to make sense of their lives. None of these stories are definitive; they are all subject to revision over time and space. Stories We Tell exemplifies the ideas put forward by Jerome Bruner in his...



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