As privacy becomes a thing of the past, proprietorship of personal stories moves to the foreground. Concepts like shame and truth are all but obsolete. The best we can hope for is some modicum of control over the narrative. In that sense, Sarah Polley’s new documentary is a complete victory.
A highly sophisticated home move, Stories We Tell centres around Ms. Polley’s discovery in her late twenties that her biological father is Montrealer Harry Gulkin, a Montreal-born Russian Jew (secular), WW II Merchant Marine veteran, producer of award-winning movies, raconteur and long-time Marxist. Not, as she had been raised to believe, Michael Polley, a self-effacing Englishman who gave up his acting career to work in insurance. Her conception was the unintended consequence of an affair her mother began in Montreal while starring in a play at the Centaur Theatre. When Diane Polley died of cancer, Sarah was 11; only a few close friends knew the truth of her youngest child’s parentage. How the family takes the outing of this story is the substance of Ms. Polley’s film.
And what a film it is. Many films, really. A candid and to some extent extremely generous exploration of a big family secret, it makes room for many points of view, and in doing so, shakes down a deluge of emotion. Several stories are told: how older siblings long suspected the truth, and why; how Michael Polley could have been so blind; how Diane’s reluctance to throw off family ties in Toronto effected her lover; how Harry met Sarah, and the heartbreak that ensued; how Sarah took ownership of the story and made everybody a star in her film. The telling is an intriguing melange of genres, including sit-down interviews with several witnesses, clips from real home movies, fabricated home movies starring real actors and re-enactments of key dramatic moments staring real people. The through-line is Michael’s written version of the story – which she films him reading – smoothly edited to produce an often guileful account of the story so far.
What Ms. Polley thinks of all this is only obliquely stated. What she left out would also make a fascinating film, but it’s not the one we’re offered. By the time Diane Polley gave birth to her fifth child (two were born of her first marriage; she lost a custody battle when she went with Michael), she had set up a casting agency, which is presumably how Sarah became a screen actress at the age of four. When her mother died, she was playing Sarah Stanley in the TV hit Road to Avonlea. She dropped out of high school and worked steadily as an actor, before turning to writing and directing. She has made two acclaimed feature films, Away from Her and Take This Waltz, and is currently working on a screen version of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace.
Stories We Tell is a juicy, heart-rending exploration of a deliciously complex family dynamic. To see it twice, as I did, is to uncover depths of meaning that would give Freudians work for years. The director may not have gone after a single, explanatory truth, but the truths she found while pursuing the goal of making a great film more than suffice. Oblique, catty, magnanimous, funny and – up to a point – honest, this profoundly personal film is one we will be watching over again as a very fine artist continues to explore demons and passions that make her who she is. Don’t miss it.
Stories We Tell won the Grand Prix Focus at Montreal’s Festival de Nouveau Cinema. Now playing at the AMC Forum/Cineplex Odeon at 2313 St. Catherine St. W. 514-904-1274
AMC Forum 22 – Now Cineplex Odeon Forum Cinemas, Montreal 2313 St. Catherine St. West, Montréal, (514) 904-1274 Fri – Thu 1:25 4:10 6:55 9:45