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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 ...

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.

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