When actress turned writer/director/producer Sarah Polley learned at the age of 28 that her father Michael Polley was not her ‘biological’father and that she was, instead, the product of an illicit love affair by her late mother Diane Polley, her world turned upside down. But storyteller Sarah decided to face her family issues through a new documentary entitled Stories We Tell.
When actress mom Diane Polley died, Sarah was just eleven. Despite the fact that the family had watched Diane battle the cancer that eventually killed her, when she died everyone was shocked. Sarah grew up with Michael Polley in Toronto and after a while her memories of her mother became vague and misty.
At 18 Sarah followed her mother’s footsteps into the acting profession and caught a break when audiences responded to her performance in The Sweet Hereafter. Ten short years later she discovered the secret that her mother had kept hidden all Sarah’s life, Michael Polley was not her father.
Stories We Tell is an intimate documentary that took five years to make. Polley searches for her own answers while asking some universal and often uncomfortable questions about betrayal, identity, the loss of trust and the definition of family. The film is a thought inspiring , mix of a documentary that examines how we construct personal narratives and shows Polley struggling with her own shocking news.
Sarah has related how the discovery of her biological father made her physically ill. She was bedridden for two week and had a fever. Sarah said, “My body went into shock and sickness, and every time I’ve gone to Montreal since then, I get really sick,” she said. “I think it’s a lot to absorb and kinda difficult.”
34 year old Sarah tells of how the news started many family conversations at the dinner table and she noted how everyone’s story was different with each family member highlighting a different aspect of the tale. The news sent ripples through the entire family and among other things prompted Michael Polley to start writing again after along hiatus and her biological father to start writing.
Before she had the idea of the film, Polley said, “I wasn’t interested in exposing myself. What got me interested was my father’s unusual and unexpected response to the news and my biological father was also writing about it. There were all these weird discrepancies in the stories, and we were also all so invested in telling it. It was really interesting to have a big drama in your own life, and have this need to make it into narrative.”
Sarah then spent five years delving deeply into her family history. She used existing footage from home Super 8 movies and old photographs with confessional interviews from her brothers and sisters. She also talked to Michael Polley and her biological father, along with other family and friends affected by the news. She exposes the filmmaking process by filming set-up shots and voice-over sessions while hiding other details; in particular her personal response to the shocking revelation.
Critics have responded favourably to Stories We Tell and have sited it as an important move forward in Polley’s evolution as a filmmaker. Last year’s Telluride and Toronto film festivals elicited rave reviews for the documentary and Indiewire called it the finest of Polley’s filmmaking skills and New York Magazine referred to Polley as a gifted actress and possibly more gifted writer-director.
Stories We Tell opened in US theatres on 10 May 2013 and is rated PG13.
By Michael Smith