Stories We Tell is a different beast to anything many of you will have encountered previously in your English studies. This blog is a continuation of the above Stories We Tell YouTube video so make sure you watch it first!
With interviews, archival footage, extradiegetic film and sound elements alongside recreated scenes, the documentary can seem very overbearing and convoluted upon first viewing. However, once you have a holistic understanding of the text a plethora of opportunity for high-level analysis and discussion presents itself. Stories We Tell is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
To begin, watch our introduction covering background and themes below:
Stories We Tell centres around director Sarah Polley attempting to piece together her family history. While she endeavours to understand who her mother Diane was and finally learn the identity of her biological father, Director Polley also poses a number of questions to viewers surrounding the nature of the truth and the importance of stories in our lives. The film is comprised of interviews with Diane’s loved ones, home movies from the Polley family, extra-diegetic newspaper clippings, recreated Super 8 footage and excerpts from other productions - all of which contribute to Sarah’s inquisition into the notion of truth, and demonstration that how a story is told can shape how it is received.
NB: I have used ‘Sarah’ when discussing Sarah Polley as a character, and ‘Polley’ when describing her as the director.
The idea of the truth, and what comprises it is a constant question being answered through the documentary. Before exploring Polley’s depiction of the truth, it’s important that we fully understand what the truth is. One definition characterises it as the burden of confirming with fact or reality, and with this in mind it becomes easier to appreciate and analyse the intricacies of Stories We Tell. Polley creates a distinction between universal truths - which are accepted by all as fact, and subjective truths which can vary on individual interpretations. For example, Michael conflicts with the rest of the family while discussing his relationship with Sarah after Diane’s passing. Mark details Michael’s obsession with “playing solitaire”, Susy depicts the house as one of “complete and utter disuse”, while Joanna observed him “smoking all day” and perceived Sarah as “just a little kid who nobody was looking after.” Michael, however, has fond memories of his time spent with Sarah - he believed he was “lucky to have her to look after as well as himself”, called their time together a “great period” - eventuating in him feeling “closer to [Sarah] than any of the other children.”
Individual recollections of Michael’s actions and demeanor during this period belong to each storyteller, and form the basis for what they consider to be the ‘truth’ regarding Michael and Sarah’s relationship. By presenting contrasting accounts of the same event, Polley reveals her stance on the idea of truth - being that it is entirely subjective and open to interpretation, centred around the perceptions of each individual at any moment in time. It is entirely possible that Michael did “smoke all day” and feel a sense of increased “close[ness]” with Sarah, but due to the variability of the human memory, this is impossible to state with any certainty - illustrating the fallible nature of universal truths.
Stories and how they are told are a constant factor during the documentary - beginning with the title, ‘Stories We Tell’ and concluding with Geoff’s admission that he and Diane did sleep together during their days acting in Montreal. For example, Polley’s use of the inclusive ‘we’ signifies her interest in storytelling on a grand scale; not merely the stories she unravels onscreen. As a result, one can argue that her purpose for the documentary extends far beyond the action captured onscreen and in fact involves Polley encouraging others to share their own stories - enabling them to “create shape out of mess” as she has done through the presentation of her own family story.
By placing Geoff’s confession at the conclusion of the documentary (and casting doubt on all of the discoveries she has made throughout Stories We Tell) Polley emphasises how storytelling allows a “clearer picture” of the past to develop - as he had previously denied any sexual history with Diane, labelling them just friends. As such his admission of a relationship with her symbolises the manner in which the truth can be “refracted” over time, leading to many “shifts and fictions” while clouding “what really happened.” Therefore, Polley reveals how storytelling can provide some semblance of closure to us, in a world where the truth is “ephemeral” and “difficult to pin down.”
While Polley undoubtedly utilises Stories We Tell to express her views on truth and storytelling, fundamentally it remains a story of the Polley family, and what holds it together. The narrative begins with the ‘storytellers’ providing loving, yet somewhat conflicting recollections of Diane as Polley seeks to understand who she was. Family members buoyantly describe her as “infectious” and “enthusiastic”, while friends paint a more mysterious picture of Diane as a “woman of secrets”, alluding to her alleged infidelity. The closeness of the Polley family is evident throughout their discussion of Diane’s first marriage, universally criticising the outcome of the court case in which she was labeled “unrepentant” for “allow[ing] her desire for a career to overtop her “domestic duties” - resulting in Diane losing custody of John and Susy, which proved to be a major strain on Diane and the family.
Despite this closeness, Mark expresses his disappointment in Diane following the confirmation of Harry being Sarah’s father - detailing the she “broke the rules” and “broke a kind of taboo” when she had the affair. This is the only real example of any member of the family disapproving of Diane’s past - indicating Polley’s desire to demonstrate that families are not perfect, and bring their own faults and shortcomings. In spite of this, however, their care the family shows for one another is clearly demonstrated through their interviews with Polley, highlighting to the audience that by staying close, families can better cope with the trauma of losing a loved one and in time, be able to honour their memory by sharing their stories.
Putting it all together
While analysing the themes in isolation can provide a good foundation for success studying Stories We Tell, looking at how they interact and interrelate enables students to demonstrate their higher-order skills. Truth, storytelling and family are intrinsically linked - for example: Polley’s presentation of conflicting accounts and recollections of Diane demonstrates the complexity of her family, while showcasing her stance on the inability of individuals to find universal truths. As a result of this, the importance of storytelling is highlighted as a means to provide some understanding of our past - and how it affects us in the present and shapes who we are. Including different interpretations of the text and the context in which Polley grew up and created the text can also help to improve your writing to A+ standard - and this will be covered in the blog post that acts as a continuation of this video! *end video*
Following on from the video, the content below is an expansion upon Stories We Tell.
Author views and values
One of the golden rules of A+ essay writing is to understand that everything contained within the text is seen to be a deliberate choice by the author. With this in mind, we can start considering how Polley’s choice to include certain snippets or position footage in a particular way highlights her views.
The truth is ephemeral - can it ever be known?
Throughout Stories We Tell, Polley continually emphasises the impossibility of knowing a truth with absolute certainty. Her stance is shaped by the clouded nature of her paternity and family history, exemplified within the text by the varying accounts of Diane’s personality. Portraying her as “infectious” and “enthusiastic”, Polley captures Diane dancing - cleverly lighting up her face, thus symbolising her warm nature. However, juxtaposing this is Deidre’s assertion that Diane was a “woman of secrets” - bolstered by Polley’s recreation of a covert phone call in which Diane ponders the identity of Sarah’s biological father. Through her presentation of contrasting recollections of her mother, Director Polley showcases the relativity of truth within her own family, inviting the audience to question the meaning of truth in their own lives, highlighting that “you can never get to an answer.” As a result, Stories We Tell predominantly displays the impossibility of one knowing a singular truth.
Subjective truths can be found
Continuing the theme of ambiguity within her synthetic documentary, Sarah Polley demonstrates that individuals can develop their own interpretations of the truth, in spite of her stance on the validity of singular truths. Within Stories We Tell, Polley illustrates this by depicting the contrasting recollections of Michael’s relationship with Sarah as a child. Supporting Joanna’s assertion that Sarah was “just a little kid that nobody was looking after”, Polley ironically captures a full shot of Michael in the middle of the couch, portraying him as a distinctive presence in the scene in spite of Joanna’s belief that Michael isn’t present in Sarah’s life. Conversely, Michael recalls his time with Sarah as “a great period in [his] life” - a claim reinforced by Polley, via recreated Super 8 footage of the pair assembling a snowman, symbolising their construction of a new beginning following Diane’s death. Through this interaction, Polley portrays Michael as a compassionate and loving father - juxtaposing this with Joanna’s description, revealing to her audience the ability of individuals to find subjective truths - encouraging them to do so in their own lives in spite of searching for universal truths.
The importance of stories
Building on her depiction of the truth as fallible, Polley thus emphasises our need to tell stories, illustrating how they allow one to better understand themselves, their families and the world around them. Within Stories We Tell, unearthing the ‘story’ of Diane takes centre stage for a majority of the production, and Polley hints towards this goal via her inclusion of Bon Iver’s folk ballad Skinny Love. The line “pour a little salt, we were never here” plays on the use of salt to heal wounds - implying that the storytellers aim to ‘heal’ their pain felt from Diane’s death via telling “the whole story” they have developed from their memories of her. Moreover, the phrase “who the hell was I” addresses Polley’s attempt to “form [Diane]” by piecing together the various second hand accounts and layers of connected stories from her loved ones - allowing her to ascertain a clearer understanding of her family history. Polley utilises stories to “[clear] up...the smoke” in her past,” praising the idea that such tales shed a light on areas of confusion and uncertainty - while also allowing one to “[cope]” and make sense of their heritage. Through her demonstration that stories enable individuals to move past the “small and large details that vary”, Polley prompts the audience to seek more information about their own families, and relay their own family stories.
Throughout the documentary, Polley demonstrates, both explicitly and implicitly, a number of her inherent values. Drawing upon these, referring to them in your essays and (most importantly!) connecting them to your analysis of the text is a great way to get ahead of the pack and maximise your marks both in your sac and the exam.
NB: Much of the excerpts contained here are analysing specific scenes/motifs, and then linking such thinking to the theories listed below. I found this to be a coherent and structured way of including this deeper level of thinking in the publication of my own essays!
Feminist lens on the social values of 1960’s Canada
By depicting extradiegetic footage of Diane singing Ain’t Misbehavin, Director Polley provides a feminist commentary on the dominant social values of 1960’s Canada; the lyrics “I walk the streets to balance the sheets” and “what is an honest girl to do” metaphorically representing the perception of Diane by the court and wider society - denied “custody” of her children due to her “adultery.”
By inserting a newspaper clipping criticising Diane’s choice to let her “desire for a career” to supercede her “domestic duties”, Polley illustrates the difficulties faced by aspirational women in such a restrictive society - condemning the treatment of her mother while calling on female viewers to continually campaign for equality of opportunity in their societies.
Outlining the fact that Diane was not considered “ladylike”, Polley sardonically ridicules the “controlling” nature of such rigid gender stereotypes and their effect on Diane losing her children - exhibiting her desire to empower her female audience to “save [themselves]” from similar situations and “ma[ke] a choice to live.”
Postmodernist interpretation of the truth
As I’ve discussed at length in this blog post, Polley continually reminds us as an audience that the truth is not set in stone and is in fact a flexible, relative concept. Such a line of thinking directly correlates to the postmodernism literary theory - notable for being hostile to absolutes such as truth, and not creating a text in isolation.
Polley continually blurs the line between fact and fiction within Stories We Tell - an ode to the postmodernist school of thought she is following. Depicting recreated Super-8 footage capturing herself directing the actress Rebecca Jenkins who ‘plays’ the ‘role’ of the younger Diane, Polley seeks to somewhat deceive her audience as to what is real and what is derivative - prompting the audience to “consider what was real and what wasn’t… in their own minds.” As a result, she seeks to promote the validity of the postmodernist critical theory, prompting philosophical discussions between individuals about the variability of memory and whether any absolute truths can ever be truly known.
Another feature of postmodernism in literature is the relationship between one text to another. In her creation of Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley exacerbates this relationship, including a number of extradiegetic elements such as newspaper clippings, emails, songs and segments from other productions in order to add greater meaning to the documentary. For example, Polley presents her email exchange with Harry, illustrating her desire for the story to include “everyone’s point of view”, as it is only then that the “whole picture” can be established. While reciting the email aloud, Polley delicately pauses when articulating that the story must include “[her] experience, [Harry’s] experience” and her “family’s [experience]”, emphasising her desire to give “equal weight” to all versions of the story.
In my experience studying the text, this documentary can be interpreted two ways:
1. as a self-reflective memoir following the journey of Sarah finding her father and gaining a more mature understanding of her mother, or;
2. A philosophical and, at-times political commentary on the way stories are told and the nature of truth. Both interpretations (and others you find or develop through your own viewing) are great to use in your writing, just ensure that they are relevant to the specific prompt/idea you are discussing!
Let's dive into each a little further:
1. Stories We Tell is a commentary on how stories are told - specifically, how the way a story is told can shape how it is received and the meaning one can draw from it
Upon first glance this point may seem rather convoluted, and several viewings of the text are necessary to fully engage with this line of thinking. Essentially, this centres around the idea that the different forms, mediums and extradiegetic elements present in the documentary can significantly influence how we as an audience react to the story that is being told.
The best way to explain this is to acknowledge the level of credibility and the associations attached to each individual medium used to tell the story.
For example, what impact does the newspaper clipping (detailing her custody battle and fight for equality in a restrictive society) have on our sympathy for Diane? Does the sense of credibility and validity drawn from an upstanding publication such as a newspaper elicit a greater sense of trust and acceptance of fact from viewers - therefore making us as an audience more inclined to view her in a positive light? Conversely, are viewers more accepting of Diane’s affair with Harry following testimony from those who witnessed her unhappiness with Michael first hand - her friends and family?
Moreover, in spite of her declaration that “equal weight” will be given to all experiences, does Polley’s use of Michael as narrator and his constant presence in the formal setting of a recording studio provide his version greater significance than Harry’s - who notwithstanding his involvement in the story as Sarah’s biological father, is resigned to providing his interview somewhat informally in a home setting, in the same vein as the rest of the storytellers?
Feel free to apply this line of thinking to other aspects of the text - such a deeper engagement with the philosophical ideas of the text are far more likely to score highly, as opposed to shallow pieces that merely discuss the storytellers in isolation - and not what they represent.
2. Stories We Tell is a commentary on the ephemeral nature of truth
The notion of truth seems to be just as much of a theme through this blog as it is in the documentary!
This is for good reason, however, as I found this to be the primary theme running through Stories We Tell, through the journey to discover Sarah’s paternity, the affair and conflict over whose story it is to tell. Truth affects a number of other ideas within the texts, such as storytelling, intertextuality, the variability of memory, production and identity - thus, using the ephemeral nature of the truth to explain why certain ambiguities exist in Harry’s “faulty” recollections, for example is an excellent way to show a greater depth of understanding of the interrelationships in the documentary.
Essay Topic Breakdown
Essay Topic from the 2018 VCAA Exam:
“To save all hurt, why not leave things as they are?”
Why does Sarah not “leave things as they are?”
This prompt does not ask you to discuss a specific theme or character - instead it guides you toward providing an analysis on Sarah Polley’s purpose for creating Stories We Tell. While authorial intent should always be included in any text response essay, it is essential that the purpose is central in response to this type of prompt - essentially, providing points of discussion as to why Sarah is unable to “leave things as they are.”
1. Unable to leave things as they are - wanted to question the concept of traditional family structures, by contrasting the influence of biological connections and emotional relationships on her development.
I discussed the effect of both Harry and Michael on Sarah’s development - concluding that while both of them had a significant role to play in her becoming the woman she is today, Michael’s influence was significantly stronger. Polley implies this by giving him a greater voice in the documentary through his role as the narrator.
2. Unable to leave things as they are - wanted to comment on the ephemeral nature of the truth in our lives.
Central to this paragraph is Polley’s use of recreated Super-8 footage. Using three prime examples (the opening scene with Diane and Michael crossing the bridge, Polley directing the actress that ‘plays the role’ of Diane in recreated footage, and the staging of Diane’s funeral) I aim to display Polley’s postmodern perspective on the truth and how this is conveyed through her deliberate creation of Stories We Tell.
3. Unable to leave things as they are - Emphasise the importance of storytelling in our lives to gain some understanding of the past.
Due to her depiction of the truth as a “mystery of nothingness”, Polley highlights the role that stories play in our lives. Within Stories We Tell, Polley attempts to understand herself by recreating Diane’s story on screen - allowing her to create “shape out of mess” and form a clearer picture of how she became who she is. Moreover, Polley also reveals how stories enable individuals to maneuver through the “wreckage” of the truth and “recreate the past.”