Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell' turns lens on her own family

Sarah Polley
Academy Award nominated filmmaker Sarah Polley at work on her film "Stories We Tell."
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley's family used to joke about how she didn't look like any of her older siblings. As she got older she learned the truth behind the joke, and it surprised just about everyone.

In Polley's documentary, "Stories We Tell," which opens in the Twin Cities Friday, she examines her own situation and how other people deal with uncomfortable family realities.

Now in her 30s, Polley has already had a remarkable life and career. As a child actor she starred in the acclaimed TV series, "The Road to Avonlea," which made her famous and financially independent.

As an adult she moved behind the camera as screenwriter and director. She received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for her film, "Away From Her," about a couple facing Alzheimer's disease. She then made the critically acclaimed, "Take This Waltz," released last year, about a woman choosing between two lovers.

And then, remarkably, she decided to turn the camera on herself.  

Like all good filmmakers, Polley has a pitch about her new movie.

"For me the film is mostly about storytelling," she said over the phone. "And about why we tell stories and why as human beings we have this need to create narrative out of our lives, and I tend to think it's to make sense of a pretty bewildering life to try to create some sort of narrative arc."

And as "Stories We Tell" shows, sometimes the arc that people find may not be the truth.

"When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all," says a man with an English accent at the opening of the film, "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 are powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you are willing it to yourself, or to someone else."

Michael and Sarah Polley
Michael and Sarah Polley record part of their family's story in "Stories We Tell."
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

  The voice is Polley's dad, Michael Polley. He is retired now, but was an actor for many years, as was Polley's mother, Diane. She died from cancer when Sarah was 11.

It was only as an adult, after years of those dinner table jokes from her older siblings, in which her Michael Polley sometimes joined, that Sarah decided to try to discover the truth.

She talked to family, friends, acquaintances and people her parents had known 30 years before. In time she began filming the interviews, although she says she never really admitted to herself she was going to make an actual film until it was finished.

"Because I don't think there was ever a moment in my mind where I thought 'this is a really good idea," Sarah said. "I think I just kept interviewing people and then began constructing the film without ever really committing myself to this being something I would share with other people. I think I just put one foot in front of the other and kept making it until it was done."

Sarah Polley was gentle, but relentless as becomes evident in one scene with her dad.

"I hope you will explain to me sometime what this is that you are trying to do," Michael Polley says in the film. "Two cameras and me, recording it visually, it's not the normal way of doing it is it?"

"I dunno, Sarah replies, "We have told you it's a documentary but it's actually an interrogation process."

A vintage photo of Michael and Sarah Polley from the 1980s
Image courtesy Roadside Attractions

It's difficult to discuss the film without spoiling it, but hinting, the story Sarah Polley's siblings always told was their mother had a fling while she was performing a play in another city. The kids even had decided the identity of their mother's lover. It turns out they were wrong, very wrong, about some of the details.

Sarah Polley lays out the tale using Super 8 film her parents shot of family life, weaving it into interviews with her family.

"You know a lot of what the film is about was making sure everybody involved in the story was included and we told the story from everyone's perspectives, as opposed to just one. So somewhere in the mess of all that is the truth, and I can't claim to know what that is."

That's what makes "Stories We Tell" more than just Polley and her family. She said every family has stories they like to tell, and they are based on interpretations as much as truth. Polley goes a step further in her film by using fictional elements that make things flow better. She said it reflects her own experience as she sought her own roots.

"I was talking to people and asking their opinions, and I never really knew if what I was hearing was real," Polley said. "I never knew if it was factual or if it was fictionalized, if it was actually the past or it was memory imbued with nostalgia. I could never really be sure or touch bottom or have solid ground underneath my feet, and I think in the filmmaking itself I wanted the audience to have a similar experience of not ever be completely certain about what they were seeing."

"Stories We Tell" is the hardest film she has ever made, Polley said, but it's also the one of which she is most proud, even if she admits she is not sure she really knows the truth, even now.