PARK CITY, Utah – Enough with telling other people’s stories. Sarah Polley has moved on to telling her own, and it’s as strange, revealing, disturbing and ultimately uplifting as anything a fictional filmmaker could dream up in her own head.
A shifting blend of documentary, confessional and reenactment, Polley’s “Stories We Tell” picks away at layers of history and mystery in her family life, exposing secrets to the world that many wouldn’t want to share even with close friends.
A long-standing family joke — that Polley’s father might not be her real father — sends her on a detective story as she turns the camera on loved ones to discover the truth about her mother, who died of cancer when Polley was an 11-year-old child actress with a career just taking off in Canada.
Polley, 34, began it as a small experiment in storytelling, examining the selective, often contradictory nature of memory and how it can add up to a broader collective truth than what’s presented by mere facts alone.
“It kind of snowballed into a film, but at every stage, I was ambivalent about how much I wanted to go forward,” said Polley, an Academy Award nominee for the screenplay of her directing debut, 2007’s “Away from Her,” adapted from an Alice Munro short story about an elderly couple coping with Alzheimer’s. “Because it is scary to expose yourself and the people close to you in this way, and it is always a danger of being incredibly self-indulgent.
“So I was really conscious of how embarrassing it could be, how ugly a process it could be to have people know so much about you,” Polley said in an interview earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where “Stories We Tell” played ahead of gradual theatrical rollout this month. “At the same time, I couldn’t stop making it, and I felt like I was learning so much. And I felt like the film was taking on a life of its own and becoming so much more about storytelling and about why we need to tell narratives about our lives than about my family and the nitty-gritty details about us.”
Polley’s second film was last year’s Michelle Williams-Seth Rogen romantic drama “Take This Waltz,” the filmmaker’s first original screenplay.
As she was developing that project and starring in such films as the romantic fantasy “Mr. Nobody” and the horror tale “Splice,” Polley continued to piece together “Stories We Tell.”
The work began with straight-ahead interviews with her siblings, her father, Michael Polley, other relatives and family friends. Through their recollections, a portrait emerges of Polley’s mother, Diane, a vivacious woman whose life took dark turns and whose aspirations as an actress complicated her family obligations.
As secrets about Diane Polley were revealed, the film expanded to include a seamless hybrid of archival home footage and re-creations featuring actors. Michael Polley also set out to chronicle his side of the story in writing, and his daughter puts him on camera reading long, lyrical passages that serve as the soul of “Stories We Tell.”
Polley adopted the hybrid of authentic family movies and reenactments to give viewers a sense of the uncertainty she experienced herself as she tried to get at the truth amid the conflicting stories her players told.
“It was a constant feeling of what is true? What is kind of true? What’s a lie? What is a fabrication that’s unintentional? What’s a fabrication that is intentional?” Polley said.
“When you’re listening to other people’s versions and they diverge from each other, you’re just in this constant sense of not knowing what you can hang on to. And I wanted to give the audience of the film the same feeling of just questioning, like, what is real, what is real footage, what is not real footage, what is found footage? What is the product of someone’s imagination? And just to be in that state of not knowing, which I think we all are in relation to our family histories.”
The truth of Polley’s family history and her parentage has been revealed in press coverage since “Stories We Tell” premiered at film festivals last fall. But we won’t spill any secrets here; it’s best to see the film without knowing the twists and surprises in store.
Polley’s heading back to telling other people’s stories now, developing an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace.” A quote from the novel serves as the epigram for “Stories We Tell,” Atwood writing that a story isn’t a story as it’s playing out, “but only a confusion. … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
Telling her own family story has cleared up much of the confusion for Polley over her mother.
“Sitting down for many hours at a time with everybody that was close to her, I feel like I have a much deeper knowledge of her, and I think it’s a privilege most people don’t get when you lose a parent young,” Polley said. “Hopefully, you have a few people who have stories, but to actually be able to dive into this in such a concentrated way and get to know this person, it wasn’t the intention of making the film, but it was an amazing byproduct.”