Category Archives: Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell: The Importance of Family

As the end credits of Stories We Tell flashed on the Carnegie screen, I proceeded to walk out of class as a mixed bag of emotions: amazement, happiness, tearful and confusion being the major four. I felt amazed by the sheer genius behind this film- Polley did not have a direct narration, allowing her story to be told through the lens of the people she was closest to: her family. I was happy because despite this earth-shattering news that Polley and her family (particularly Michael) processed and endured, they were all still apart of each other’s lives and agreed to do the film and show their support for Sarah. I was tearful mainly because of the emotional journey the film takes the viewer on- I’m usually not the one who cries during movies but this film did cause my eyes to slightly fill with tears. Finally, I was confused mainly of why I was so emotionally invested in this film. Though I cannot go back to that Monday’s class, I believe I was invested because it was a real story, with real people who were sharing their real emotions and experiences. I’m not a huge documentary fan, but this film was truly brilliant.

Though I’ve already stated a few reasons of why I loved this film, the main reason would have to be the film’s subject matter involving family relationships. For me, my family is a huge part of my life, with a large extended family on both my mother’s and father’s side. So naturally, I am pulled to films that document a family’s struggles and triumphs, especially when the struggles are caused by the actions of other family members. To me, what is most interesting about families is no matter how much they fight among each other, they still remain a strong (though probably a  little dysfunctional) support system. Keeping the family theme in mind, I decided to make this list the top 5 films to watch if you enjoy a dysfunctional, but loving family.

  1. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
    • People you may know: Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Steve Carrell
    • General plot: A black comedy road film where a family travels from New Mexico to California in a Volkswagon Microbus so Olive, the cute-but-awkward daughter, can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine’s beauty pageant.
    • Best quote: “It’s okay to be skinny and it’s okay to be fat, if that’s what you want to be. Whatever you want, it’s okay.
  2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
    • People you may know: Gene Hackman, Gwenyth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson
    • General plot: A Wes Anderson comedy-drama film that follows three siblings from a wealthy family. Though they were extremely talented and successful when they were younger, but now as adults are disappointments and struggling with their lives.
    • Best quote: “Anybody interested in grabbing a couple of burgers and hittin’ the cemetery?”
  3. Ordinary People (1980)
    • People you may know: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore
    • General plot: A drama film that follows the lives of the Jarrett’s, a middle class family that is struggling with the recent death of the oldest son and the attempted suicide of the surviving son. As the surviving son tries to cope with his loss, he has many conflicts with his mother.
    • Best quote: “So I was crying because I don’tknow if I love you anymore and I don’t know what I am going to do without that.”
  4. 51 Birch Street (2010)
    • General plot: A documentary film that is the first person account of Doug, an adult whose father has announced that he is selling Doug’s childhood home and moving to Florida to begin a relationship with his secretary. Through cleaning the house, Doug discovers secrets of his late mother’s unhappiness.
  5. August: Osage County (2013)
    • People you may know: Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Abigail Breslin
    • General plot: A drama film that follows the story of a dysfunctional family that reunites to search for Beverly, the respected patriarch who has gone missing. The majority of the family has seen or spoken to one another for many years, with the reason why becoming very evident after they are all under the same roof.
    • Best quote: “Thank God we can’t tell the future, we’d never get out of bed.”

I apologize that I only listed one documentary but like I said, I am feature-length film person. Seriously though if you only check out one of these films, please make it August: Osage County– it is definitely in my top 10 films of all-time (do not listen to Rotten Tomatoes).

Memory in East Asian Film

If I heard correctly, Sarah Polley mentioned that she was partially inspired by the film Rashomon when she was making her documentary. In fact, Rashomon is one of several movies I had to watch in my comp lit class, for which I am writing a paper on memory in Asian literature. I think the sense of memory that we get from the documentary (that is that it’s not absolute and can change with time and whose perspective we’re getting), is very similar to the idea of memory that’s present in several East Asian films that I’ve seen.

To begin with Rashomon, this is a Japanese black and white film that received impressive international recognition at the time it was released. The basic story is that a man goes under a rashomon gate for shelter from the rain. Under the gate, he sees a bamboo cutter and a monk looking sad. The man asks what’s the matter and they tell him that they have just witnessed a trial which really tested their faith in humanity. Basically what happened is that a bandit named Tajomaru raped the wife of another man (who I think was a samurai). Later the samurai was found dead by the bamboo cutter, who was asked to testify. Tajomaru, the raped widow, and (through the help of a necromancer) the murdered samurai were all asked to give their version of the events. Each person’s version was different, and they were clearly trying to make themselves look in the right. In the end, the bamboo cutter gives his version of the events, which we can assume to be the “true” version.

Another film with a rather similar structure (and a more modern look, if you’re interested in checking these out) is Zhang Yimou’s Hero. This is set in China, when the Qin Emperor wanted to unify the country under one ruler. In the process, he destroyed many rival kingdoms and obviously made many enemies. Three of these enemies team up to try and take the Qin Emperor out. The basic plan was that one of them (who was a known enemy of the emperor) would pretend to be killed by another so the “killer” could get an audience with the emperor as a reward. Then the “killer” (who is also the titular hero) would murder the emperor. The plan works up to the point of getting an audience, but then they start to chat. The emperor asks the hero how he assassinated the enemy of Qin. The hero gives his version of the story, but the emperor sees through it. He gives his own version of what he thinks happened. Then the hero counters with a final version of the story, which we can assume to be the truth. In the process of seeing all these versions of what happened, the audience, the hero, and the emperor all learn more about the involved characters. Motivations change, and the film ends in a rather dramatic and unexpected way.

From both of these narratives, there’s clearly a theme about how absolute truth can be hard to grasp just from the memories of people. After all, everyone has a different perspective of what happened and different motives for remembering things the way they do. I thought it was interesting that, even in such different contexts, this theme from Sarah Polley’s documentary could still apply.

F for Fake

While watching Stories We Tell I thought a lot of its themes, ideas, and execution were pretty similar to Orson Welles’ famous documentary F for Fake. Sarah Polley even cited it as an influence in one of the interviews we watched.

Stories We Tell explored the idea of truth as it relates to memories and stories, while F for Fake explored truth as it relates to art. Orson Welles explores the story of a famous art forger to bring up the ideas of truth. With art forgery, you never know if the piece you are looking at was actually created by the artist you think. Elmyr, the art forger in the documentary, was apparently able to convince the best experts that his paintings were actually Picassos or other famous artists. F for Fake really makes you question whether most of the paintings you’ve seen are real or fake, and it makes you ask whether it even matters in the end. Stories We Tell makes you ask the same questions about memories and stories.

F for Fake is an especially interesting documentary because it makes you question the authorship of itself. Orson Welles edited the documentary, but he did not create most of the footage contained within it. He just took another documentary about Elmyr and recut it to explore the themes he wanted more deeply. He also added a few of his own segments. So Welles makes you further question authorship of art through the idea that new art is just inspired by old art and manipulates old art to be something new.

There is also a segment in F for Fake where Welles begins telling a completely made up story that sounds plausibly true and then reveals it was fake. This is similar to the way Polley made fake footage of her mother and family members when they were younger. It turns out none of it was real, but aren’t the ideas behind them still important?

So Polley’s ideas aren’t new, but as F for Fake asks us, are any ideas really new and does it matter in the end?

Dear Zachary

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While watching Stories We Tell I began to notice similarities in the film to another documentary that I had previously seen, Dear Zachary.  Similar to Stories We Tell, Dear Zachary focuses on someone close to the subject of the film making a movie about that person’s life.  It utilizes a similar setup in which the director allows the friends and family members of the subject of the film to talk about their experiences and memories of the subject.  This allows for the different perspectives of the subject to come through, in the case of Dear Zachary the film focuses on Andrew Bagby.


stories we tell 3

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father was made by Kurt Kuene, a childhood friend of Andrew Bagby.  It was made after Andrew was murdered in Latrobe, Pennsylvania with the apparent culprit being Shirley Turner, a woman that Andrew had previously been seeing.  It is best not to go into the film knowing a lot, but rather to go in blind and experience it fully.  However, be advised that the film is terribly sad and you will definitely walk away feeling sickened and sad.

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The similarities between the two films revolve around the way in which they were shot.  Both allow for the friends and family members to build up the subject of the film and to show the different view points that each person has of them.  I also thought it was interesting how in Stories We Tell it seemed that Sarah was using the film to discover who her mother was, and in Dear Zachary the film is used to tell Zachary who is father was.  Overall, I think both films are interesting insights into how we describe people and tell their stories, but the production and direction in Stories We Tell was definitely better than that in Dear Zachary.  I think some of the subtleness that was in Stories We Tell could have been utilized in Dear Zachary, but all in all I still highly recommend the film.


The “Agonizing” Process of Creating “Stories we Tell”

After viewing Sarah Polley’s care-free, easy-going attitude during Stories we Tell. I was very much taken aback when I stumbled across an article outlining how strenuous the filming process was for Sarah. While her situation is unique — creating a film of others essentially piecing her past together without interference — the relaxed and confident demeanor portrayed as she directed her family members and occasionally laughed along with their side remarks seemed genuine. In reality, her persona was masking some deep-rooted anxiety.

Sarah was filming Stories we Tell during the period between her first and second marriage — a troubling transition between two different chapters of her life. Even though the documentary is raw and without a script, it took five years to finish filming, primarily due to Sarah’s anxiety. She took a break from filming Stories we Tell when she became too overwhelmed (most likely from simultaneously dealing with an elusive past, troubling present, and ambiguous future) to create Take This Waltz, a comedy about a couple ending their relationship. Perhaps Sarah was looking for some comedic relief, especially by adding an element of humor to a situation very similar to her own. The article quoted Sarah explaining:

“I asked the NFB if I could take a hiatus and in the hiatus I made Take This Waltz, and it was literally to do something I loved and clear my head. To be actually excited and interested in something as opposed to dreading every day. Stories We Tell was a really agonizing difficult process and Take this Waltz was just joy. The NFB allowed me to take a year and make another film and then I came back to it with fresh eyes.”

Furthermore, Sarah explains the debilitating nature of hearing an “outpouring of raw emotions” from her friends and family, and having to endure listening to each interviewee’s account of her mother’s death time and time again.

“Even though I wasn’t going through it emotionally when I was sitting there — I was very objective and distant about it — I think it got under my skin and made me quite depressed. . . . I just really needed to get away from it.”

Perhaps the style of her documentary underscored her traumatic past even more; while it was her mission to convey the importance of listening to multiple accounts when learning about the past, I can imagine the lack of a single truth to be relatively unsettling, especially in the context of such a personal issue.

Lastly, Sarah mentions her controlling personality, and that she was so focused on planning out the details of the film that she was often “not in the moment.” This leads me to question if her lack of interjections during the interrogation process was entirely an intentional strategy to avoid bias, or a product of her mental distance throughout the filming process. This sensation is ironically very similar to the quote from Alias Grace that is used to set the stage for the documentary:

“When you’re in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness … it’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or to someone else.”

In the midst of her depression and whirlwind of emotions and creative thought while making the documentary, Sarah was not only stitching together the stories of her friends and family, but also creating a new story of her own. Despite the “agony” she suffered while creating Stories we Tell, and the physical sickness she experienced as she awaited the first reviews of the film, Sarah expresses that creating the documentary forced her to constantly reevaluate what she was doing, and was therefore a very rewarding experience.



Sarah Polley: Someone Who Actually Really Matters

So I have always had this odd view of documentaries as “not mattering.” Well, that’s not true. What I mean is that they never mattered to me. They always seemed low-budget and low-impact. Feature-length movies always appealed to me more. So when going into this movie, I didn’t really expect anything. What a pleasant surprise to see that I really enjoyed it. But more than that, I found this weird rabbit hole of Sarah Polley’s importance to film and my own personal film enjoyment.

So first off, in the movie, when they’re talking about that point where she gets a phone call but she was dressed as a Neanderthal, they mentioned that it was part of the movie Mr. Nobody. At that point, I had one of those big “wait really?” moments. Mr. Nobody is one of my top 10 movies, but the only actor in it whose name I ever remembered was Jared Leto, but that’s just because he’s everywhere nowadays. Then I found out that she is one of the three girls in Nemo’s life, meaning she had a huge role. So kind of weird that I never knew about her.

That led me to her IMDB page, and for someone who has been in so many things I’ve seen, she definitely should be a name I at least sort of knew. She was in the more recent remake of Dawn of the Dead, which say what you will about it, was at least pretty cool. But she was a main character in that movie. Also, she was in that HBO John Adams series which I think everyone had to watch at some point in their junior high career. She was Nabby Adams, the daughter that died, which was kind of a major plot point.

This brought me to Sarah Polley’s Wikipedia page, and she’s won so many awards. Her first real directorial debut, Away from Her, won her an award for achievement in direction and a nomination for an academy award for best adapted screenplay. Stories We Tell won the Toronto Film Critics Association award for best Canadian film of the year, which is a $100,000 prize.

So, I kind of give a little more cred to documentaries now, considering that they can have some big deals associated with them. Also, a lesson to you all. Searching IMDB pages of actors and actresses is another rabbit hole that will ruin an entire day’s worth of work.


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