Toronto’s worst kept secret is out. A front page story in today’s Globe and Mail spilled the main revelation of Sarah Polley’s new film, Stories We Tell, which premiered this week in Venice. The man she has called Dad all her life is not her biological father. That role belongs to her late mother’s some-time lover. The Globe didn’t name him. Rover will.
A few years ago, film producer, union activist, raconteur Harry Gulkin invited me to lunch. He was seeking advice about something he was writing. The matter required me to keep a secret; I agreed. Harry, then in his early 80s, had just received a DNA report confirming a suspicion he’d had for decades: that he was the father of Toronto child star turned acclaimed film director, Sarah Polley.
In the spring of 1978, Harry had an affair with actress Diane Polley who was in Montreal to perform in David Fennario’s play Toronto at the Centaur Theatre. The following January, Mrs. Polley gave birth to a daughter. Harry and Diane remained friends for years after the affair ended; the Polley marriage continued unruffled. In 1990, Diane died of cancer, leaving 11-year-old Sarah to be raised by her husband, Michael Polley. They had two older children and were also raising two from her previous marriage.
How did Harry Gulkin take the revelation? “It wasn’t a surprise. I had known about it since before her birth. I was sent pictures of Sarah in her mother’s arms, and followed her career with the knowledge that she was my daughter. The DNA test confirmed this. I was thoroughly delighted. Coming at this stage in my life, meeting her was a gift.”
He was proud, amazed, happy and sometimes a little confused by the swirling dilemma of how the news would play out to other people, including his other children. (They took it well.)
Since the private outing, Sarah Polley has brought the two families together to meet at a social event, and gotten to know her biological father. But she has retained a strong grip on when and how the widely-known truth would actually become public knowledge.
In a blog posting about the making of Stories We Tell, Polley wrote, “I had long suspected, based on family jokes and rumours, that my mother may have had an affair that led to my conception.”
While she was in Montreal shooting a film in 2007, she learned that a journalist was about to break the story. She managed to convince him to sit on it, but realised it was only a matter of time before the truth got out. So, she set out to find out more herself. The search turned into a documentary about the various versions of the story that exist in and around her family. Stories We Tell opened at the Venice Film Festival this week, and will be part of the Toronto International Film Festival, with showings on Sept. 7 and 8..
Without naming Harry Gulkin, Polley writes, “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.”
When she told the truth to Michael Polley, he responded by starting to write about the past himself. She says his chief concern was that no one should blame Diane for straying outside the 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 the affection of another person.”
The film is about the many opinions and versions of the story that exist simultaneously, what it means to different players and how their lives are shaped by the need to tell stories. Surely the most astonishing angle is Sarah Polley’s ability to keep her news secret, when so many people knew. She thanks a few of them: journalists Brian Johnson and Matthew Hays (Rover contributor) who she says have known for years. “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.”
In any case, the apple – as they say – doesn’t fall far from the tree. The son of Russian communists and revolutionaries, Harry grew up in Montreal during the Depression, was a member of the Merchant Marines and a union organisor. He ran the Saidye Bronfman Theatre for several years, and turned to film production in the 1970s. His production of Lies My Father Told Me, based on Ted Allan’s book, won a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. He was a film officer at the SODEC for many years.
No doubt we’ll be getting Harry’s version in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, the strains of an old Leonard Cohen line spring to mind. “Now your love is a secret all over the block, And it never stops even when your master fails.”
Read Polley’s complete blog post here.