The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

A fearless expedition into the swamp of family myths

with 11 comments

I used to be convinced that my family was one-of-a-kind. We were a bunch of odd people, each one with his or her own quirks and issues, assembled to a dysfunctional organism that just barely hold together.  So was the story, so were the myths we built around the self-appointed strangeness – or “stroke of insanity”, as my aunt labelled it in a lowered voice. “It’s in our genes. It’s who we are.”

Of course I was wrong. Not in that our family had issues – we had, and we still do. But I was wrong to flatter myself with the idea that we were so unique and no one, apart from my sister and brother, possibly could have an idea of what it was to be a part of it.

After gathering some life experience, gaining my grey hair, I realized being dysfunctional was normal. All families are to some extent; I have yet to meet one that isn’t. Every family has a mythology. We all carry stories about shame, pain and regrets about bad life decisions. We tell those stores to ourselves. There are secrets hidden in every house on the street where I live, areas that are left alone in conversations, because it’s easier that way. Someone could get upset.

If you know your family history well enough you can get glimpses of the past as you’re looking through photo albums or watching old home video. But the stories we tell about the pale and blurred images are usually simplified and not entirely accurate. We adjust the truth so it becomes more convenient, without the sensitive parts. It makes it much easier to carry. And when enough of time has passed we start to believe that our edited stories actually are the truth.

Stories We Tell
The Canadian director Sarah Polley had a family story that she wanted to learn more about and she didn’t stop at the photo album level. What were the circumstances around her birth? What was the truth about her mother and father? There was something hidden beneath the official family record, but what was it? She went out for a search, asking family members, friends and working colleagues of her parents to give their different versions in the documentary Stories We Tell.

Without spoiling anything, the family secret that is unveiled isn’t all that much to be upset about. I’ve seen families that are more dysfunctional and I’ve learned about secrets far more intriguing and devastating. But the film has an additional meta-layer and this is what makes me love it so much. At the core it’s not a film about Sarah Polley’s family history; it’s a film about what the title says: the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s about how we tell them, why we tell them and what influence they have on our lives. It’s the kind of movie that makes you think.

After seeing it I felt a sudden urge to make an expedition into my own family’s misty swam of myths. Somewhere deep into the storage I know there’s a box full of diaries and photo that I saved from destruction when my grandfather died but never gave a closer look. Maybe an excavation could throw some light on the stories that still are obscure to me?

I wouldn’t give it too much hope though. What I’ll get is yet another version, yet another story, the one that my grandfather told himself and others. But the truth? It’s still out there. It always will be.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, CA 2012) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

September 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Stories We Tell

11 Responses

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  1. This really sounds fascinating – one of those documentaries I will definitely keep an eye out for even though I doubt I will ever see it. The idea of how the stories themselves are at the centre is very entrancing. I also love your closing line. Very well written.


    September 17, 2013 at 12:16 am

    • Thank you! While this movie is far from widely spread I hope you’ll get the chance to see it. It’s fairly easily digested and puts you in a thoughtful mood.


      September 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

  2. This film blew me away. I have never seen anything like it before. I can;t even imagine how Polley did it. I mean, I cried through most of it.
    Favourite film of the year by far.
    Good post 🙂


    September 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

    • Thank you! My top 10 list of 2013 will be crowded as always, but this one will be up there fighting for a spot!


      September 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

  3. One of the highlights of my TIFF experience was making a new friend who worked at The National Film Boad of Canada, and having her hand me a free copy of STORIES WE TELL on DVD. While I initially kicked myself that I didn’t catch the film’s festival debut last autumn – or its various showings in theatres around town in the months to follow – I was happy to catch up with it in January and begin to spread the word.

    The only thing that’s made me happier? Seeing how well the whole world has taken to it.

    Great piece Jess – just the thing I needed to help me emerge from my TIFF-going cocoon.

    Ryan McNeil

    September 17, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    • Thank you and welcome back to the world outside of the bubble! I’ve wanted to see it since the TIFF screening – everyone seemed so enthusiastic about it. It took it a long time to reach as far as to Sweden, but finally it did. And I can assure you it hasn’t lost any of its initial magic during it’s journey across the world.


      September 18, 2013 at 11:17 am

  4. I didn’t like Polley’s previous film (Take This Waltz) so I wasn’t planning on seeing this. It was actually a last minute decision because I had some free time in my schedule. It turned out to be one of the best films I saw all year. Unlike for example (Searching for Sugar Man), this is not really that interesting of a story or that intriguing of a mystery on its own. It’s all in the marvelous way she tells it.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    September 24, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    • Yes, I wasn’t a huge fan of Take This Waltz either. The riksha driver… it was just a bit too much to me, though I did have some good parts in it, like the unsual take on naked female bodies in the shower scene.
      On the whole it didn’t feel original though, which on the other hand this one did. It felt so natural, so close to life as it is. Thoughtprovoking, without using big gestures. I loved that.


      November 3, 2013 at 1:49 pm

  5. I actually didn’t enjoy this one that much. I felt that it functioned a lot more like a family home video than something aimed towards the general public. As you state, what is revealed in the film is not that crazy compare to a lot of other docs with similar plot reveal structure.

    Joel Burman

    October 1, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    • The funny thing about me is that I love to see other people’s home videos. So no problem there!


      November 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm

  6. […] Stories We Tell Sarah Polley took a trip into the family swamp of myths and lies and got us all thinking about the stories we tell. […]

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