(Sundance) Review: Stories We Tell

Posted by Alia Haddad on January 25, 2013 at 11:20 am

(Sundance) Review: Stories We Tell

As soon as I read the films that were going to show at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I knew Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell would be at the top of my list. Not only am I devoted fan of the actress-turned-director, with her film Take This Waltz ranking as my favorite of last year, but also Stories We Tell, itself, received rave reviews when it played at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. This was a movie just for me.

And after seeing the film, it remains as such and was, by far, my favorite film I saw at the Festival. With The Crash Reel coming in as my second favorite from the Festival, you might be wondering just how the documentaries beat out all the narrative films for my favorites. Well, while Stories We Tell remains in the documentary category, I maintain that it is the furthest thing away from a documentary that a documentary can be. Rather, Polley did such a good job of distorting and revising the documentary format with Stories We Tell that the genre almost–almost–became unrecognizable.

And just as the genre was revised, the film’s plot seemed to follow suit. What started off as a simple investigation into who Polley’s real birth-father was, turned into a movie exploring the roles of story telling, truth, and narrative in the way they play out in both a documentary and in real life situations. While some have called Stories We Tell overindulgent, as the filmmaker made a documentary whose subjects are her family and herself, believe me when I tell you that the movie is anything but.

As stated throughout the film, Polley set out documenting this discovery not for mass consumption, but because she felt the personal need to, not knowing throughout if she wanted her footage to ever see the light of day. When she made the decision to turn all of this exploratory footage into a documentary for the audience to see and judge, she decided to make it as transparent as possible. It is this transparency that truly sets this film apart from almost every documentary I have seen to date. Following in the footsteps of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, we see Polley filming throughout the movie. But there is much more to this transparency than just the constant reminder of the filmmaker behind this “truth.”  For example, not only does she tell the audience that the would-be voice-over is a story written by the man she always knew as her father telling his “side” of the story, but she also films him while he’s recording this would-be voice-over, changing the structure of the film completely. This is just one example in a long line of characteristics that set this film apart from the typical documentary.

Furthermore, Polley does more than just revise the documentary genre as we know it to make this movie truly excellent. There is so much heart in this movie, as in all of her films, that I would have had to actively tried to not care about the story that was unfolding. Instead, I let Polley take me into her world, and nearly two hours later, I left feeling so incredibly moved, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

SEE IT. Seriously, See it.



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