Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley, Director
Viewed at the Available Light Film Fest
February 4-10, 2013, Whitehorse, Yukon
Reviewed by Nadine Sander-Green
Stories We Tell is an experiment that went incredibly well.
In her first documentary, Sarah Polley searches for the truth about her mother, an actress who died of cancer when Polley was eleven years old. She does so in the most direct way she can think of: by interviewing everybody and anybody who knew the exuberant Diane Polley. We meet Diane through her handful of children, her husband Michael, her friends, an actor who worked on stage with her for only a few months. She is remembered as a fearless character who had a terrible voice but sang all the time. Diane was the life of the party, a woman always trying to fix the mess she had created, a loving wife, a mistress.
In several interviews Polley has admitted she had no idea if the film (which took over five years to make) was going to amount to anything. She even said she was embarrassed to be making it. She couldn’t figure out why she needed to tell the world her family’s story.
What comes out of this experiment is a surprise. Polley’s biological father is not Michael Polley, the father who helped shape her into the woman she is today. Her biological father is Harry Gulkin, a film producer who had met Diane when she was acting in a play. Although Polley’s family joked she might not be Michael’s real daughter (her blonde hair says it all), it seems as if that’s all it ever was: a joke.
For those who have followed Polley’s career, from child-actress in CBC’s Road to Avonlea to director of the critically acclaimed Away from Her, learning about her “real” father is a juicy piece of information. But scandal is not what the documentary is about.
Stories We Tell questions why we need to expose our personal stories. It’s not a new question, especially in this age of the memoir and general lack of privacy. The answer doesn’t come quite to the surface in the film, but it’s there. It’s in the audience’s trust as the film meanders along in no clear direction except for Polley’s steely determination. It’s in the way the film is paced; the slow unravelling of little truths that make the film whole.
At first glance, Polley’s story is not exceptional in any way. Many people uncover truths about their parent’s infidelities. Some discover more devastating truths. Many have suffered more. The success in this film is simple: Polley makes her story matter. It’s her honesty, her vulnerability, but mostly it’s her constant prodding for some version of truth.
Members of the audience are sure to leave with more questions about truth and memoir and the need to tell stories than they arrived with. Polley has brought to light what many have ignored when crafting their stories; it’s easier to believe there is only one truth, rather than incorporate many.
But the audience will also leave with the weight of a full story, and a darn good one at that.
Nadine Sander-Green is a writer and photographer based in Whitehorse, Yukon.