For years, it has been Sarah Polley’s most closely guarded secret. And if ever there were a need for a spoiler alert, this is it.
Audiences who want to appreciate fully the artistry of the gradual revelations in Ms. Polley’s new film, Stories We Tell, should read no further but, as Ms. Polley herself confessed in a blog post on Wednesday, the film is about her parentage.
After years of family jokes and rumours about the parentage of the youngest family member, Ms. Polley discovered in 2006 that she was the product of an affair her mother, actress Diane Polley, had in the 1970s.
The filmmaker, who earned her status as Canada’s sweetheart in the TV program Road to Avonlea and was nominated for an Oscar for her film Away From Her, has kept that discovery a secret – even waiting a year before telling the man who raised her.
Until now. Ms. Polley broke her silence ahead of her film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7.
“It was a story that I had kept secret from many people in my life, including my father,” Ms. Polley writes in a post on the National Film Board of Canada website. “He was not my biological father. This had been confirmed by a DNA test. … I had met my biological father almost by accident, though I had long suspected based on family jokes and rumours that my mother may have had an affair that led to my conception.”
The subject of the documentary has been the topic of much media speculation in recent months because Ms. Polley and her co-producer, the NFB, have been extremely secretive about its content. Ms. Polley has refused all interviews, while the NFB has said only that Stories We Tell contains documentary elements and shows different family members offering differing accounts of their history. Journalists were left guessing that Ms. Polley’s subject was her family.
In the blog post, she describes meeting her biological father and making friends with him, but keeping his existence a secret from Michael Polley, who had raised her single-handedly after her mother’s death in 1990, until she became concerned that he would learn it elsewhere. “My father’s response to this staggering piece of news was extraordinary,” she writes in the blog. “He has always been a man who responds to things in unusual ways, for better or for worse. He was shocked, but not angry. ... His chief concern, almost immediately, was that my siblings and I not put any blame on my mother for her straying outside of their marriage.”
As Ms. Polley acknowledges on the blog, it is a common enough story – and yet there is nothing common about her film, which on Wednesday made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Ms. Polley, who appears on camera interviewing her siblings, her fathers, her aunts and her mother’s old friends, positions the film as an investigation into family history, taking as her theme the unreliability of memory and the contradictions in different people’s experiences of the same events.
Some of this is in the film, some dispute about whose story this really is, some disagreement about whether the gregarious and spirited Diane was an open book or a woman with secrets; whether Michael was an attentive husband and father or a cold fish; whether he was the love of Diane’s life or another of its disappointments. Probably he was both. This film, most of all, is Ms. Polley’s sensitive quest for all three missing parents; in their turn, the two who are still living are remarkably generous in their willingness to be found. And the one who is gone is brought remarkably to life through the device of old Super 8 films. At some point, these silent family movies give way to ingeniously staged recreations that take Diane off to Montreal and the affair; it may be this device that has made the NFB hesitate to call the film a documentary, but the moment when real gives way to recreated, when actors take over from Polleys, is so artful it is all but indiscernible. (Cast by Sarah’s half-brother, John Buchan, the film is a great testament to another branch of the family show business: Diane was also a casting director.)
At just the right moment, Ms. Polley skillfully fesses up to the recreations, but there is no sense of duping the audience here. Instead, there’s a thematic consistency as life gives way to art. Similarly, if the film seems to wander about looking for its conclusion, that quest feels like Ms. Polley’s own, unfinished story. Family, after all, is for life.