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johanna schneller

‘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

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.)

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."

Old-fashioned judgmental morality caused a gaping disaster in her mother's life in 1967, Polley continues, referring to an episode that's detailed in the film: Diane's marriage to Michael was her second; her first had ended in divorce, and because she'd been unfaithful there, too, she lost custody of her two children. (They came back into her life as teenagers, but damage had been done.) So Polley has "no interest in projecting that particular set of standards on her memory," she says. "I'm not a huge fan of affairs, or of monogamy not being honoured when it's been agreed upon. I'm not a huge fan of lying. But I feel it's really important to look at the whole picture." She pauses. "I have lots of feelings for my family that are messy and need to be untangled, but I don't think I've ever been mad at my mother. Except for dying." She laughs wryly. "I'm really mad at her for dying."

Of course, this whole story is changed by the fact that Polley is a mother now. "I thought it [motherhood] was going to be pretty damn great, but it's better than that," she says. "It's just shockingly good. I feel at the end of most days that that was the best day of my life." She also has days where she's "exhausted and crazy," and she thinks it's important to mention that. "But generally I feel super lucky," she says, grinning. "I got an awesome baby."

In fact, Polley is so happy going to play groups, strolling through parks and "living a very old-fashioned picture of motherhood" that she spent the first few months of Eve's life "panicking, because I felt no desire to ever work again." That's easing slightly – "Her naps used to be all about laundry for me, but now I've started to write a little bit, so that's a big step." Still, she doesn't think she'll be back on a set for at least a year. "I'm a both-feet-in person," she says. "In the past, when I've made a film, there's been nothing else in my life. So I guess this will be an ongoing exploration of how to manage that."

Ever the researcher, Polley's looking for role models – she scheduled a coffee with Patricia Rozema, a fellow director and mother, to ask how she's done it. And ever the rabble-rouser, she feels that "if we want women to make films, something needs to get pioneered" to integrate child care into filmmaking. "I'd love to be part of a movement that figures this out."

Right now, though, her baby needs feeding. But I can't let Polley go without asking one last question: Surely, spending this much time contemplating her mother's life has led her to some realizations – about what kind of mother she wants to be, what she hopes to do as well or differently?

"Let me think about that," she answers. She falls silent for a long moment. Then she breaks into a grin.

"It's such a superficial answer," she says. "But I think of the thousands of times I've watched footage of my mum and drawn conclusions from it – taken away some moment in time that I perceive to be the whole of her existence as a mother. So now I'm so overly conscious of every photo or video that's taken of me! I see one and think, 'I don't seem warm enough,' so in the next one I try to be warmer, but then it's clear I'm trying too hard, and Eve will see that." She laughs and rolls her eyes, but it makes perfect sense. Polley has just spent five years witnessing how powerful a story can be, how it takes on a life of its own. How this brand-new present will affect her past, and be seen in the future, is yet untold.