This entire piece is a spoiler. It has to be, because there’s no way to talk about Stories We Tell – the dazzling new documentary from writer/director/actress Sarah Polley, which opens next Friday – without mentioning some of its revelations. In it, Polley plays cinematic strip poker with her family’s history, peeling back layers of long-held assumptions to expose new truths, some of which seem tabloid-ready. But Polley didn’t spend the last five of her 33 years making this film just to give us facts. She made it to tell us a story.
It began six years ago, when Polley first learned that her dad, the actor Michael Polley, is not her biological father. Or it began 22 years ago, when Polley’s mother, the actress and renowned casting director Diane MacMillan Polley, died of cancer. Or it began sometime before or in between. Either way, five years ago Polley started to interview her family on camera, without knowing where the project might lead. She’d never done that before.
“I’m someone who needs to be so overly prepared for everything I do in life, I have to have my bag packed for the next day before I go to sleep at night,” Polley said last week over chips and guacamole at a restaurant near her home in downtown Toronto. “I’m very obsessive, so it was really weird for me to enter into a process without knowing where it was going.”
All she knew was that Michael had started to tell the story, in an e-mail to his relatives in England that was so long it took them three days to read. And her biological father had started to tell his version – the one only he could tell, since it featured but two people, one of whom was no longer alive. Sarah and Michael had started to tell it together, too – “We would tell people at parties, going back and forth,” she says. “It was a bit of a routine we had.”
Laughing, she looks serene and rested – remarkably so, since she and her husband of one year, David Sandomierski, have an eight-month-old daughter, Eve. Polley’s face has always had a wise-beyond-her-years gravity, but she’s grown into it now. Though she’s still delicate-looking – makeup-free today, with a cotton scarf looped around her neck – there’s no trace of girl left.
An actress can’t segue from early fame on the family hit Road to Avonlea to choosing to work with some of the world’s most artistic directors (David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Terry Gilliam, Hal Hartley, Wim Wenders, Michael Winterbottom) to writing and directing singular films of her own (Away From Her, which received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay; and Take This Waltz) without having an unusually alert and absorbent mind. So Polley couldn’t help but notice “how important it was to all of us to tell the story – and to be the one to tell it,” she says.
But contrary to Tolstoy’s notion that unhappy families are unique, Polley felt her circumstances were “sort of boring; the story is one we’ve heard many times before.” What captivated her was how the relationships themselves began to change as a result of telling it – she and Michael, for example, grew closer – and how, “just by telling a story, you can fundamentally change it.” So she began shooting interviews, rippling outward from her family to close friends to colleagues of her parents, and collecting family footage. (She later shot some new material on Super 8 to fill in the gaps.)