Stories We Tell: A post by Sarah Polley
August 29th, 2012
Filmmaker Sarah Polley about her new film, Stories We Tell.
Today in Venice my latest film, Stories We Tell, will be screening for the first time. Until now, thanks to the extraordinary decency of many people – including some journalists who have known the story for years and kept it secret – I have been able to keep its contents under wraps.
Knowing that people will now write about the film itself as well as the story it is based on, I’d like to explain a bit of the process that lead to the making of the film and why I’d like the film to speak for itself. I realize that I’m not nearly accomplished enough to write this kind of blog without apology. The world is not waiting for my next film! But because I am hoping to not do any press or interviews about the film for its festival life, I do feel I owe an explanation to the journalists who have helped me keep this secret and been respectful of my process for some time.
Here is the story of how this film came to be, and why I hope people will write about the film itself and not only the story it is based on.
In 2007 I was on set in Montreal, shooting a scene for the film Mr. Nobody. I received a phone call from a friend warning me that a journalist had found out a piece of information about my life that I had kept a secret for a year. I got in touch with the journalist and begged him not to print the story. It was a story that I had kept secret from many people in my life including my father. It took some time and many tears to convince the journalist not to print the story within the week, but I left that conversation convinced that it was not a secret I could keep for long, and that if I wanted the people in my life and outside my life to know the story in my own words, I would have to take action.
I flew to Toronto that night to tell my father the news. He was not my biological father. This had been confirmed by a DNA test with a man I had met a year earlier. 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.
My father’s response to this staggering piece of news was extraordinary. 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. He was candid about his own lack of responsiveness towards her and how that may have led her to the point where she sought out the affection of another person. And then he began to write. And write and write and write.
He wrote the story of their marriage, her affair (which he put together from other people’s memories), and his relationship with me. He wrote about our need to tell stories.
My biological father, at my behest, had also begun writing the story of his relationship with my mother. He is a fine storyteller too and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Each of us had a deep and growing need to tell the story, different parts of it, in different ways, with emphasis on different details, in a way that reflected our own experience and what was most important to us as we are now.
My siblings began telling the story to their friends. Journalists who heard the story from various sources began calling me and asking me to be interviewed about this discovery. Everyone who heard the story seemed to want to own it. Up until then many people had mused aloud to me that the story would make a great film. I disagreed. While it had huge relevance and emotional impact for the people close to it, I felt that this story was in fact quite common. I felt I had seen this film before. However, the process of watching a story take on a life of its own, mutate, and change in so many other people’s words fascinated me. And as the story was told, or perhaps because the story was told – it changed. So I decided to make a film about our need to tell stories, to own our stories, to understand them, and to have them heard.
Personal documentaries have always made me a bit squeamish. I’ve seen some brilliant ones, but they often push the boundaries of narcissism and can feel more like a form of therapy than actual filmmaking. (Though I could listen to anyone’s therapy session and be entertained, I think.)
I’m not claiming that my film lacks self involvement but what I wanted most was to examine the many versions of this story, how people held onto them, how they agreed and disagreed with each other, and how powerful and necessary creating narrative is for us to make sense of our bewildering lives. I wanted the story told in the words of everyone I could find who could speak about it. Whatever my own feelings are about the events that are outlined, about the many dynamic and complicated players or the stunning, vibrant woman my mother was, they are ephemeral, constantly out of my grasp, they change as the years pass. (I declined to use a “voice of God” first person voice over narration because it felt false, self involved, and besides the point.) But I found I could lose myself in the words of the people closest to me. I can feel and hear and see their histories, and I wanted to get lost, immerse myself in those words, and be a detective in my own life and family.
Anything I want to say myself about this part of my life is said in the film. It’s a search still, a search for meaning, truth, for whether there can ever be a truth. I have a lot of trepidation about doing interviews and being asked how I feel about it all. I worry about seeing my deepest feelings about my life taken out of context or shortened or made to fit into someone’s already written story. And I have spent five years deciding, frame by frame and word by word, how to tell this story in this film. I’d hate to see my inability to think before I speak wipe out years of work with one stupid comment that I haven’t thought through.
I have decided not to do any interviews about this film until the film is released theatrically and I hope that doesn’t offend, or that journalists who are assigned to cover the film understand this choice after seeing it. I’m sure it’s annoying to not have a new angle or a different quote than other journalists and I’m really sorry to create that problem for the people who decide to write about it. But I desperately want, at least while the film is on the festival circuit, to have people experience and write about the film before the story – or to experience the many stories that this story has become as opposed to just my version of it. It is, after all, why I made the film in the first place. It’s oblique I know. The film is much less oblique than this fearfully written blog. I’m trying to preserve as much of the experience of viewing it for the first time as I can for those who wish to see it, for better or for worse.
I learned so much along the way. I got to know my mother who died when I was 11 in a way that isn’t usually possible for people who lose parents young. I got to know so much about my family, about filmmaking, about trusting collaborators to keep making the movie when you need to just walk away for a time (for this I have to especially thank my editor Mike Munn, my DOP Iris Ng, Producer Anita Lee and Production Coordinator Kate Vollum, as well as others, who all kept on making the film while I hid in a corner for periods of time). I also learned that people can be more decent and ethical than you imagine. Several journalists, including Brian Johnson and Matthew Hays (and more recently Gabe Gonda, the arts editor at The Globe and Mail), have known this story for years. And while they very much wanted to print it, they all respected my wish to keep this story private until I was ready to tell it in my own words. I think arts journalists in Canada are made of good material generally. I’m so thankful to them for letting me have the space to explore this on my own, ask the questions I wanted to ask, and let this film come out into the world. I never could have made it if I hadn’t had that space and time.
Making this film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took five years and tormented me. I didn’t want to make it, and I wanted to give up many times along the way, but I also didn’t want this story to be out there in the words of someone other than the many people who lived it. Now it will be written about in many other people’s words, and I’m finally at peace with that. With the inaccuracies, with the new insights that I may not have arrived at on my own, with the broken telephone that happens when “concentric circles of people,” as my biological father says, begin telling their own stories without experiencing the original versions. That is what the film is about anyway and after five long years I’m actually looking forward to its arrival in the world, and the inevitable mess that comes from a story being told and retold.
“Stories We Tell”
There’s family, there’s history and then there’s the truth, but as Sarah Polley explores in her beautiful and uniquely moving documentary “Stories We Tell,” all of those terms carry different weight depending on the eye of the beholder. Begun as a project to investigate her own family background, “Stories We Tell” blossoms into a riveting portrait of a family still carrying secrets, heartache and accepted truths that sometimes fly in the face of reality. But Polley’s entire point is that one person’s “reality” is someone else’s “fiction” and her brilliant film almost deconstructs itself as it goes along, calling into question its own presentation of the “facts” yet never feeling academic, and always wholly emotional. It’s the rare documentary that we’d argue contains “spoilers” which aren’t just part of the narrative (though it’s more enjoyable if you’re in the dark a bit,) but the presentation itself. One of the most intelligent documentaries we’ve seen in quite some time, at times enlightening and profound, the film proves the simple truth that the “Stories We Tell” about our own lives can’t always be trusted.
Sarah Polley Examines Her Own Family In Lovely, Fascinating ‘Stories We Tell’
by Oliver Lyttelton
August 29, 2012
Sarah Polley has a secret. It’s a secret that, remarkably, she kept under wraps to all but friends and family until the film screened at the Venice Film Festival this morning. It’s a secret that’s seemingly informed her two directorial efforts to date, “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” and is the subject matter of her third film, and first documentary, “Stories We Tell.” And it’s a secret that’s led to her finest work as a director so far.
It’s also a secret that is so important to the film that it would be virtually impossible to discuss it without giving it away. So, while Polley has written about it online today, knowing it going in might theoretically hamper your enjoyment of the film, the spoiler-phobic should be warned that from here on out, we will be giving certain things away. Be assured that fans of Polley’s work to date will be delighted by a documentary that serves simultaneously as a gripping mystery, a moving record of a family and a fascinating investigation into the nature of truth, memory, and the documentary form itself.
Made up of interviews and what initially appears to be archive home movie footage (in the manner of Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation”), the film begins as a portrait of the director’s actress mother Diana Polley, and of her marriage to Polley’s father Michael, which ended when Diana passed away from cancer when Sarah was eleven. To build up this picture, Polley has interviewed her father (who was also an actor for a time), her siblings, and her parents’ friends, who paint a picture of a vibrant, complicated woman in a relationship that was loving, but not entirely happy.
And then comes the secret. Her brothers and sisters had long joked that Sarah didn’t look much like her father, and when she turned 18, began to make enquiries, discovering that her mother may have had an affair with a co-star when she was in a play in Montreal around the time that Sarah was conceived. Polley is eventually intrigued enough to seek out Canadian producer Harry Gulkin (the Oscar-nominated “Lies My Father Told Me”), an old friend of her mother’s, to ask. In fact, Harry reveals that he was the one who had an affair with Diana, and suspects that he’s her father. In fact, having now met her, he’s sure of it.
On one hand, Polley tells this story as truthfully as is possible – through the words of those who it involves, or who were there for the aftermath, like her four siblings. Indeed, the bulk of the film’s narration comes from a lengthy essay her father wrote after the fact, read in his own dulcet tones (Polley shoots within the recording studio as he does so, charmingly showing her directing her father, and her own nervous energy, in the process). At the same time, by the very nature of the film, she’s editorializing, manipulating the narrative for maximum shock value, and shooting reconstructions of what initially looked like archive Super 8 footage, with actors playing her parents in their younger days, and the real-life participants playing themselves in more recent times.
But to her credit, Polley doesn’t just acknowledge these liberties, she makes them an intrinsic part of the film, to the extent that she openly questions her own motivations for making the documentary. She’s essentially encouraging the audience to ask questions about how possible it is to closely recreate and document the past, and whether a documentary can achieve those goals.
It’s fascinating stuff, doubly so because of the clear parallels with her previous directorial efforts. Her real story is reflected both in the late-in-life adultery in “Away From Her,” and the fallibility of monogamy, and the risks of not making the leap into the unknown of “Take This Waltz.” (Interestingly, her sister comments at one point that after discovering Sarah’s news, all three Polley daughters were soon divorced). She keeps herself mostly off screen, and yet the director is exposing just as much of herself as anyone.
Which makes it all sound quite high-minded, but the film’s plot, if you can call it that, grips like a thriller, and Polley takes care to introduce the participants as characters rather than as her relatives. And all of her “characters,” from wisecracking older brother Mark to the Albert Einstein-ish Harry to the quiet, repressed, impossibly generous Michael (the source of much of the film’s emotion) are hugely entertaining, and are simply a pleasure to spend time with.
There are some issues. Shying away from introducing her interviewees clearly at the beginning means that even by the end, you’re sometimes struggling to work out how they relate to one another. And the film drags in its conclusion, stacking multiple endings on top of one another. They all contain good material, but one does start to shift a little in the seat. But for the most part, it’s a film that tickles both the brain and the heart, and by some distance Polley’s most consistent, and best, work as a director to date. [A-]
A Clip from Sarah Polley’s documentary on “Stories We Tell”