Stories We Tell (film)

The last week has been a little crazy. I worked five days straight and submitted my (official) exegesis draft. To reward myself, I spent last night at Nova, seeing Stories We Tell, a Canadian film/doco by Sarah Polley. Ed had recommended this film ages ago, when it screened at MIFF, but I think I had been overseas? Anyway, I was lucky enough to see it yesterday.

The film opens with the Margaret Atwood quote I posted here recently:

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. (Alias Grace)

The film is about Sarah Polley’s mother, and — without giving too much away — old family secrets. Polley interviews different family members and friends, and gains a slightly different story from each. This wasn’t surprising to me, after all the research in memory and subjectivity I have undertaken this year. What did surprise me, though, was the different ways people understood story, and the ways in which it should be told. One family member wrote a memoir and wondered about the perspectives of other people. Another interviewee expressed the view that they were the owner of the story and were the only person in the world who could tell it “truthfully”, even though their record of it contradicted everyone else’s.

The way that secrets were uncovered through intensive interviews made me wonder about the nature of storytelling. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. The details of what happened will ultimately be adapted, changed and shaped in the telling of a story — but if we were to refrain from telling it for the sake of preserving the “truth”, then there wouldn’t be a story.


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