when you're telling it to yourself

Because I'm sure many have not heard of it, let alone seen it, I must explain: Stories We Tell is a documentary about a mother, about a family, about the way we re-create memory in the telling of it, about how we decide what is history and what is not. Future thesis-writing me (sometime this summer probably), will appreciate the following. This is a reflection of everyday life; we pick and choose the moments within our past to hold onto, we pick and choose the people in our lives that matter and those worth forgetting, we pick and choose what parts of our personalities to express and which to hide away where no one else can see it, and we pick and choose the face we put on, the clothes we wear, the words we say. In other words, we invent ourselves as an ongoing process. You do it. I do it. Life is a story we are constantly telling and retelling until, we hope, we get it right.

Of course, there is no right. There's just the way it is.

Right off the bat, I must say of Stories We Tell that it enjoys existing on multiple levels. Many a documentary divides its time between talking head bits and old footage. It seems in recent years there are a lot of instances of documentaries offering a brief behind-the-scenes energy, a slightly Markward moment of silence as the scene is setup for an interview or as the interview has ended but the subject has not gotten up to leave just yet. This documentary relishes these moments, even including its own mistakes. (For instance, Polley asks her father to reread a line of what is essentially his narration for the film, but the previous version of the line is still there, and so it Polley telling him to do it again.) It begins as almost a making of itself, showing the subjects before their interviews begin...

...showing cameras and equipment that will soon be out of frame, recording its own process--what director Sarah Polley calls "an interrogation process." A review of the film at filmslie.com tells us that Polley "did not know how to make a documentary and remembers writing a 300-page script because she was felt not [sic] prepared for shooting and the documentary approach to movies" but really I've got to return to the idea that there is no right, there's just the way it is. Documentaries, like any other film, are expected to do certain things, show us things certain ways. But, every documentary still manages to be different, not just because of the subject matter but also the filmmakers, the individual subjects interviewed. By not privileging certain versions of the story here, Polley offers up something that is both different and entirely the same as every other documentary, every other film. Plus, as I said above, every day of every life. Polly tells the Guardian in an interview, "Telling stories is our way of coping, a way of creating shape out of a mess. It binds everyone together" (Kellaway, 2013, June 22). We create one story of which we are all a part--and every documentary must inevitably produce a singular story for its audience. (This story--Stories We Tell even has a clear 3-act structure.) But, the audience understands (and rewrites) that story in its own way, each individual taking in the details and incorporating it into what he or she already knows and understands about the world. About life, perhaps. Bain (2004) offers a rather straightforward description of how this process works--he's writing about learning within a classroom, but the same applies in all situations. He writes:

For example, I have a mental model of something called a classroom. When I enter a room and receive some sensoyr input through the lens in my eyes, I understand the input in terms of that previously existing model, and I know I'm not in a train station. But this enormously useful ability can also present problems for learners. When we encounter new material, we try to comprehend it in terms of something we think we already know. We use our existing mental models to shape the sensory inputs we receive. That means that when we talk to students, our thoughts do not travel seamlessly from our brains to theirs. (p. 26)

Nor does a filmmaker's message travel seamlessly to our brains. Nor do the things we are told by our teachers, our parents, our religious and political leaders, our friends, our family, our loved ones and our adversaries. Everything gets filtered through what we already think, what we already know. Polley offers us numerous versions of the same story in Stories We Tell to make a point about how numerous stories become one story... The stories we tell not only produce personal history and family history but societal history, everything we know and understand about, well, everything. I'm reminded of a line from John Izod (2000, which I think I've quoted a few times by way of Julie Ellen Benesh's (2011) dissertation about Groundhog Day):

...for viewers, no less than for Phil, an imprint remains as during the film the audience members "introject" or take in its psychic content including symbols, images, and narrative, as well as projecting individual personal concerns. After the film, if it is particularly "resonant." the process continues as the film "plays on" in the viewer's mind. A personal "edition" of the film is thus created and is assimilated into the psyche of the viewer. (Benesh, 2011, p. 8)

A personal edition of a film, a personal addition of a life. I imagine it like this: I am a story with many writers--my parents, my sisters, my friends, my ex-lovers, my children, my teachers... everyone that has come into and gone out of my life, and those who went before them--but the final cut is mine.

I am also a writer of many stories--not just the actual short stories and novels and screenplays I have written, not just the 661 blog entries now that I have put here, but the story of each person that I affect each day.

I will write you as well as I can.

(For those familiar with the film, I have deliberately left out the so-called "twist" of the third act. I will deal with that particular detail on its own another day this week.)


Bain, K. (2011). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benesh, J.E. (2011). Becoming Punxsutawney Phil: Symbols and Metaphors of Transformation in Groundhog Day (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (Accession Order No. 3450252)

@filmslie. (n.d.). Stories We Tell Analysis: Sarah Polley's Documentary. filmslie.com. Retrieved from http://filmslie.com/stories-we-tell-review-sarah-polleys-documentary/

Kellaway, K. (2013, June 22). Sarah Polley: 'Stories are our way of coping, of creating shape out of mess.' The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jun/23/sarah-polley-stories-we-tell-interview


  1. I hadn't heard of that documentary but it sounds fascinating. Unfortunately we don't have a copy in my university library. A pity, I would really like to see it.

    I love the theme of identity and story-telling so I will be eager to read what you write in the upcoming days.

    1. iit is streaming on netflix, if you've got that. and i highly recommend it


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