Stories We Tell
Directed by: Sarah Polley.
Written by: Sarah Polley.
While watching Sarah Polley’s extremely personal documentary Stories We Tell, I got the feeling that Polley made the film to figure out why she was making the film. In the film, Polley documents her own family – focusing on her parents from the time they met and fell in love, until her mother died of cancer, when she was in her pre-teens. She was the youngest child – an accident to be sure, one that according to her father, her mother almost decided to abort. If that sounds to you like one of those things that most parents would never tell their children, you’d be right. But this family is different. We see it when Polley interviews her brothers and sisters, who are funny, charming and honest. And you see it when Polley’s father Michael reads aloud the letter he wrote to Sarah after discovering that he wasn’t her biological father – a letter than helps this documentary find its narrative through line – and brought me, at more than one point, to the brink of tears. This is a family that doesn’t keep secrets from each other.
And that simple fact, that seems so obvious in the film, is what makes its central story so fascinating. Because a secret has been kept – for decades. I mentioned in the opening paragraph that the letter Michael Polley reads to his daughter Sarah was written after he discovered he wasn’t her biological father. What I didn’t mention was that he – and Sarah – did not find that out until Sarah was almost 30. Her mother, Diane, had an affair with movie producer Harry Gulkin when she went to do a play in Montreal in 1978, and came home pregnant. Because she had also been with Michael during this time, she never knew for sure who the father was, but never let on to anyone that it may not be Michael. Although she did send pictures of young Sarah to Harry in Montreal. He knew he may be Sarah’ father – in fact, in his heart, he knew he was. And this was not just a fling for Harry – he truly, madly, deeply loved Diane – wanted her to leave Michael and bring her kids to live with him in Montreal. But she wouldn’t, and he figured if that’s the way she wanted it, and he could not persuade her, it was better to just leave well enough along. When she died, shortly after Sarah’s 11th birthday, he still decided to do nothing. But there was always rumors in the family that Sarah wasn’t Michael’s biological daughter – she looked nothing like him. These rumors were merely a family joke, until Polley decided to do some digging herself – and then met Harry on an unrelated matter and quickly discovered the truth. What does this knowledge do to a person who is almost 30? Especially when they cannot confront the person they most want to, because sadly she has died? Perhaps more importantly, what does it do to the family? Is there a reason why all three sisters got divorced shortly after learning Sarah’s real paternity? What does it do to the perception they all had of their mother?
Stories We Tell is an exceptional documentary, in part because it doesn’t seek to answer these questions, but simply to ponder them. This is a movie more about family narratives- yes the stories we tell to each other about our shared history. Polley recreates home movies – extremely convincingly I might add – that shows Diane in different lights, depending on who exactly is telling the story. There seems to be as many different Diane’s as there are people talking about and that I think is precisely the point. Our perceptions of who each other are is what we really remember, perhaps not who the person really is. At one point, late in the film, Harry warns Polley that she will never find the truth – she will never touch bottom here, because there are really only two people who know the story of him and Diane, and one of them is dead. That is true, but sometimes searching for the truth is more important than truth. I recently finished reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which is an endless searching for IT that the main character never really find. It’s the journey, not the destination that counts.
All of this probably sounds rather pretentious, heavy handed and perhaps like a vanity project for Polley. But it isn’t – not really anyway. It’s a deeply personal film to be sure, but it’s also a deeply felt film – Polley doesn’t place herself in the middle, doesn’t make herself the sole arbiter of the truth (although, as her father points out, that by editing the film, she is deciding on the truth, which is also true, and also a great reason to include Michael saying it). It also puts into perspective Polley’s other two films as a director – her stunning debut film, Away From Her, about a long married couple being torn apart when one of them gets Alzheimer’s, and the sacrifices the other makes for them, and this year’s Take This Waltz, which also looked at a bored housewife and an affair – which is as honest and unflinching as Stories We Tell, in that it both feels sympathy and scorn towards its central character. Polley made that film when she felt she needed to get away from this one for a while. The two films certainly enrich each other.
With just three films under her belt as a director, Sarah Polley has become one of the best Canadian directors working right now. Her films are intelligent, well made and honest. Polley was once a wonderful actress – but she’s an even better director.