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‘I’m very obsessive,’ says Polley, of her new film, Stories We Tell, ‘so it was really weird for me to enter into a process without knowing where it was going.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
‘I’m very obsessive,’ says Polley, of her new film, Stories We Tell, ‘so it was really weird for me to enter into a process without knowing where it was going.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Johanna Schneller

Sarah Polley unspools – and films – her own family’s complex tale Add to ...

Interestingly, she chose not to interview herself. Though she appears in several scenes, she’s never the focus. Fiercely protective of her private life, Polley admits, “It’s a strange choice to do this. The whole concept of the film is more revealing of myself than I would ever have expected.” But because she already knew what her own reactions were, she didn’t have to delve into them. “I was interested in what I was seeing, not what I was experiencing,” she says. “I wanted to share my experience of hearing the different versions and the way they were converging and diverging. And to let the audience have the experience of being the observer – being me.” The result is a neat trick: She hides in plain sight.

She ended up with a whopping 250 hours of film that touched on mistaken assumptions, a landmark court case and a whiff of child abuse. “We spent two months, all day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., just watching the interviews and making notes,” Polley remembers, her eyes going wide. “I can’t tell you how close I came to a nervous breakdown, several times.” Given that her focus became how people are changed by telling stories, “it felt like an enormous risk to be taking with all the relationships in my life. Thank God they’re all intact and good, because I’ve been dreading the last few months for five years.” Just before she locked the final edit, Polley held individual private screenings for each of her subjects. Remarkably, no one asked to change a single frame.

Along the way, Polley found something precious that she hadn’t been searching for: By telling the story of her fathers, she rediscovered her mother. “I got to sit for eight hours at a time with most of my mum’s close friends – who loved her so much and are so articulate and have such vivid memories of her – and ask questions in a totally focused way, without distractions or awkwardness,” she says. “I don’t know anybody who’s lost a parent young who’s ever gotten that privilege.” She delivers that line so simply, my eyes fill with tears.

Yes, she learned that her mother had had an affair, and that she herself was someone else’s biological child. But Sarah was a 27-year-old, with a strong sense of her identity and unassailable family bonds. She felt no judgment: “I feel so in awe of what my mum was able to accomplish. All five of her kids had complex childhoods, but all of us felt loved by her. I’ve never known exactly what a star is – I know I ain’t one – but she was a star. I had the most exciting mother in the world. Most people pale in comparison to her vibrancy.

“I think she was a woman before her time, a proto-feminist without knowing it,” Polley continues, wide open now. “I feel like she had so much pressure on her, to be working full-time, raising five kids, in a marriage that – as my dad talks about – wasn’t necessarily feeding her. I think she did what she needed to do to keep our family intact. If she hadn’t had an affair, I wonder what that would have cost us. … I find it really hard to judge her. Maybe if my dad hadn’t had the [generous] response he’d had, I might’ve had a different reaction. It’s hard for us to be angry with her when he isn’t.”

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