Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell, 2012.

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  You might find that this essay notes some things to watch for.

    This is a movie! Repeat. THIS IS A MOVIE! The first thing we hear is a film projector running, and throughout we hear music that would be played at a silent movie. We are shown home movies, filmed interviews, bits from feature films, film of Polley filming, even an old-fashioned kinescope. In Stories We Tell, Polley shows both her passion for experimenting with film and her fascination with relationships.

    Her first two films were about marital infidelity, and so is this one. But Stories We Tell concerns her own family and parentage. In an interview with Paul Dallas, she said, “I feel as though I've been making films about the shadows that the figures in the cave were casting and now I've gone into the cave and made a film about those figures themselves.” But she has also made a film about film and our belief in what we see.

    The reviews routinely call Stories We Tell a documentary, but it is hardly just that. Polley herself insists, “This is not a documentary.” She and others have called it “a quest,” “a film,” “performances,” “a search for meaning,” or “a gripping and absorbing meditation on the unknowability of other lives.” Polley herself claims, “It is a story.” Or (in the film itself), “This is not a documentary. It’s an interrogation process.”

    Oddly, for such an indeterminate work, it builds on one of the traditional big themes of Western literature: the search for the father: Telemachus in the Odyssey, Stephen in Ulysses, Bleak House, Light in August, Huck Finn—one could go on and on. As the saying goes, it’s a wise child that knows its own father, and a quest for a father probes the core of our our bisexual reproduction. Mothers we can’t mistake, fathers we can. Suitably, near the opening of the film, Sarah’s father Michael gives us a disquisition on our DNA and its uniqueness, an image that repeats when, late in the film, we get the results of a DNA test for parentage.

    Sarah Polley again and again in interviews has said that we should read the film as such. “I hope people will write about the film itself and not only the story it is based on.” So, like everybody else, inevitably, I need to spell out that story so that I can talk about the film.

    Sarah's mother, Diane Polley was a comely blonde, an actor, a mother, ebullient, frisky, full of energy, the life of every party. She was always doing a zillion things at once. And she was married—her second time—to Michael Polley, something of a stick-in-the-mud. At a certain point in their weakening relationship, she announced that she was going to Montreal for two months to act in a play—fine, said Michael. He visited her up there and, as they say, put new spark in the marriage. A few weeks after she came home Diane discovered she was pregnant. In due course, Sarah was born.

    The family would joke that Sarah didn't look much like her father, and eventually Sarah decided to look into the matter. Enough said. If you want to know more about Sarah's creation, you can look here, but I warn you, there are spoilers galore.

    Stories We Tell is a film about Sarah's inquiry. Polley uses two tactics. One consists of talking-head interviews with a steadily expanding group of people. First come her older half-sibs, Susy and John Buchan (from Diane's first marriage), and Sarah’s sibs Mark and Joanna from Diane’s second marriage. Then she interviews people with whom Diane acted in Montreal. She tells us of her discovery and coming to terms with that. Finally, family and others deal with the aftermath of what she found. That’s all in the immediate past before the release of the film.

    The other tactic consists of flashbacks via various home movies, grainy film, unsteady hand-held camera, clumsy framing and acting. Diane Polley herself died when Sarah was 11. The movies with Diane in them would have to have been taken more than twenty years ago and preserved and then found and used by Sarah. Similarly, they show Michael, her father, the sibs, Diane, of course, and Sarah herself at younger ages. And these movies show the kind of thing one sees in home movies: parties, people at the beach, skating, clowning around. Then there are other movies of Diane and Michael acting (before he became an insurance agent to support the family). And Diane acting and partying in the Montreal production. Finally the film ends with interviews with Michael and other family members as they come to terms with what Sarah found. Scattered all through are films of Polley at work on this film—metafilm.

    In other words, the dominant image in this film is film itself or performance: the “storytellers” performing for Polley’s camera; her father reading his memoir of the whole thing into a giant sound mixer; people clowning in the home movies, people performing in plays, Polley herself on camera—and on and on. At one point Polley points her 16-mm. camera directly at us (well, her cameraman)—we too are performing this film, making it into its story. In the back of my mind, I think of words like creativity and performance, words that have a sexual connotation as well. This movie, after all, concerns procreation and sex.

    As for performance, Americans should realize that Canadians would have a different experience of this film. Canada has one-ninth the population of the U.S., and I sometimes get the impression, dealing with Canadian colleagues, that everybody who is anybody knows everybody who is anybody. Diane Polley, Michael Polley, and certainly Sarah Polley and perhaps the sibs (all in show business) would be real, even familiar, to Canadians. To an American, who are these people? They will seem more fictional to us than to Canadians.

    With all these different kinds of filmings, Stories We Tell can come across as chaotic. By way of gloss, Polley begins and ends the film with a quotation from Margaret Atwood’s novel, Alias Grace: when you are in a story it is chaos, and it only becomes a story when you tell it to yourself or someone else. At first, Sarah Polley was in the middle of the story, finding out about her mother's doings in Montreal and coping with what she finds. Chaoses. But when the film comes to an end she has told it to several someone elses—especially us. And the telling is very fine.

    As always, look to the opening and the close. The opening shot looks out a train window at a bridge—the road of life perhaps? I notice that the production company is “Roadside Attractions”—is that what this film, all film, is, an attraction by the side of the main road? Both the opening and closing shots end in laughter, a sign that we are not to take this movie or its emotionally charged subject-matter totally seriously. Sex is a lark, and art is, after all, only art.

    Despite the seeming chaos, Polley has composed her film artfully with rhymes and echoes. The film opens with Michael Polley asking, “How far am I gonna go up?” (In actors’ slang, to “go up” means to forget one’s lines, but Michael is about to read from his careful literary text. ) Then, near the end, he recalls Polley directing him in one of her student projects: "Just keep going down!” (To “go down” in acting slang is to be a success.) Michael muses abut flies and his relationship to them, echoing William Blake’s little poem, “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” (Songs of Experience, 1794). At the beginning Michael talks about DNA and people as the “finished products” of their DNA. But then, near the end, he tells us, “Her life changed forever.” She was not a finished product. The DNA test announces the fathering as 99.997% certain, but none of the characters repeats the number correctly. As Polley insists, we all have our different versions.

    Besides these subtle touches, Polley quotes some feature films, and they too are cleverly chosen. Marriage Italian Style (De Sica, 1964) deals with not knowing the father of a strumpet’s children. Anna Christie (Brown, 1930) tells of a tart’s finding love. And Polley’s acting a Neanderthal in Mr. Nobody (Van Dormael, 2009) takes us back to our DNA and the biological core of this picture.

    The spoiler file looks at some more abstract possibilities for reading this film. If you choose (I think wisely) to see the film first, I have said here about all I can say without saying too much. But even without the insightful gems of the spoiler file, I think you can see that this is one superb film.

Distribution company

The road

Diane Polley

Michael and Diane

How far am I gonna go up?

Michael reading his version

Michael remembering

The kinescope

Keep going, further down

Polley filming

Final comic note

An item I’ve referred to:

Dallas, Paul. 2013. “Relative Truths.” Filmmaker - The Magazine of Independent Film, 21.3 (Spring): 48-51,88-89.

Enjoying: Now, shift focus from the story line, Who is Sarah’s father?, to the many films-within-a-film. And read the spoiler file.