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The Simplicity of Story and the Complexity of Truth, in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell

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The simplicity of story and the complexity of truth, in Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’

Christian Averion


Film Stories We Tell (2012) (118mins)

Director Sarah Polley

Module Autobiographical Film

Topic Non-Fiction Film

Considering the debates about documentary offered by Bill Nichols and John Izod & Richard Kilborn, discuss Stories We Tell as an example of documentary film practice.

There are an infinite amount of responses to the question, ‘what is documentary film,’ as for every well thought out definition, there are exceptions that come along with it. A distinction between the form and function of documentary and traditional fiction film “will conceal as much as it will reveal,’ (Nichols, 2017).

At its most simple form, documentary is the exploration of truth. Surveying the world through your own lens, to reflect your own perspective on reality. Through the use of interviews, possible re-enactments and reconstructs, documentary aims to project a certain subject matter as it truly is. The common belief that documentaries simply ‘document’ history, experiences and events is clouded by the fact that documentaries are “made of ‘fragments of reality’, which are carefully assembled and edited according to… established narrative principles,” (Izod &Kilborn, 2011). Evidently, the question of its true definition just leads to more questions. Whether documentary film is a commitment to the actual or rather the director’s exercise of self-expression; obviously guided, consciously or subconsciously by the meaning and narrative they put upon the past.  John Grierson first played with this concept, defining the genre as the “creative treatment of actuality,” (Hardy, 1979). Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’ bridges the gap created by Griersons definition. The rift between creative treatment and actually becomes less of a flaw and more of an insight into true essence documentary film, and more importantly the essence of story telling.

The meta-narrative that is Stories We Tell,’ acts as personal search of the vagaries’ of truth and the revelations that are inherent in such a journey. The film paints a picture of memory, ephemerality, subjectivity, ambiguity and the commitment to our own stories and perspectives. Polley expertly exemplifies the meaning of documentary film practice, whilst subverting its traditional narrative forms, in reference to the works of Nichols, Izod and Kilborn. This leaves the audience with not merely a story about herself, rather a story concerning all of us; why we feel the need to tell stories, understand them and most notably, have them heard.  

Narrative Structure, Reconstruction and Truth

I believe the films brilliance lies in its structure: the structure of narrative, the reconstruction of stories and the pursuit of truth. Aspects of the film that echo the purity of documentary film practice. More specifically, how Polley approaches the project with specific ‘modes’ outlined by Nichols, Izod and Kiborn


As stated previously, the purpose behind Polley’s film can be boiled down to a personal search of the vagaries of truth. This search is executed through an Autobiographical film lens, with Polley using her family as a model for story telling and self-reflection, rather than the subject. Through this lens, the truth behind the identity of her biological father is partly represented in a Participatory and Interactive Mode through interviews conducted with, what Harry Gulkin describes as, principle players and the circle of people “affected tangentially,” due to the nature of their relationship with said players.  (Nichols, 2017; Izod and Kilborn, 2011).

Within the film Polley highlights the interaction between herself and her family. It is done in a truly participatory mode, through interviews, conversations and provocations (Nichols, 2017). The film thus becomes less of a self-portrait and more of “an extended family’s portrait of itself,” (Kellaway, 2013). Although the brush is extended to the people who also loved Diane, the painter (Polley) still has the last stroke. Catherine Russell sympathises with this notion, stating “Autobiography becomes ethnographic at the point where the film- or video maker understands his or her personal history to be implicated in larger social formations and historical processes,” (Russel, 2012). Furthermore, the autobiographical nature of the film, even if intended not to, becomes a journey of self-discovery as the value of this documentary style “is not its fidelity to fact but its revelations,” (Adams, 1990).

Izod and Kilborn would suggest that the film is more specifically an interactive mode of documentary. Through Polley’s emphasis on giving “equal weight” to each subject the interactive mode enables her to “get the truth from the horse’s mouth (as it were),” (Izod and Kilborn, 2011). This style of documentation has been deemed to be natural to audiences in its provocation of truth (Izod and Kilborn, 2011).

Through these interviews and the documentary filmmaking process Polley is made aware the film, and thus documentary, may not truly centre on the subject matter. Her Mother Diane or even the identity of her biological father. “The film is really about me.” She questions her insanity a she tries “to reconstruct the past through other people’s words.” The subject matter itself, according to Polley herself is overplayed but what most fascinated her was the idea that it was the people who knew her, Diane and Michael were propelling the story in so many directions. And no matter how contradictory, in order to interact and fully discover herself, she needed the true perspective of others.

By the end of the film Polley provides a profound insight and distinction between fact and truth. Absolute fact is superficial, at the surface of a story. Truth is so ephemeral, as the director states herself. Polley is not showing us the absolute truth, rather, the exploration of all perspectives, reactions and emotions within the film in order to provoke its own truth.


Because of its auto-ethnographical nature the film creates a “staging of subjectivity,” (Russell, 2012) inherent in most documentaries. Polley’s choice of editing and story reconstruction amplify this idea, thus it can be categorised to represent a reflexive mode of documentation where the “historical world is represented itself becomes the topic of cinematic expression,” (Izod and Kilborn, 2011). Opposed to many documentaries that share the same reflexive characteristics, Stories We Tell is not underpinned by a political agenda, although in the same way as other films in the modal category Polley implies that “people’s memory, perceptions and interpretation of events are distorted” (Izod and Kilborn, 2011), by the subjectivity and complexity of memory. Evident in the reflexive films such as The Thin Blue Line, questions begin to arise surrounding the idea of actuality, and its subsequent destruction through editing and reconstruction. The audience of such films begin to “question whether the images and sounds of the text could possibly represent the world adequately, since they are plainly a construction of the filmmakers,” (Izod and Kilborn, 2011). As Polley states in an interview “I’d spent 5 years deciding moment by moment, frame by frame exactly how I wanted to share.” Michael even alludes to this in the last third of the film asserting that the ‘truth’ is lost after the editing of all their stories.



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