Like many Canadians of a certain age, I grew up with Sarah Polley. The television show Road to Avonlea was pure Canadiana; set on P.E.I. it was loosely based on stories written by our most beloved author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables and Emily series. Avonlea, already in re-runs by the time I was cognizant enough to follow along, was the kind of innocent wholesome entertainment my mother felt comfortable letting me watch unsupervised. Every episode, the Edwardian-era children got into some sort of scrape, only to come clean, confess, and repent by the end of the hour-long program. It was predictable. It was comfortable. It felt like home.
The series—at least in the beginning, before Polley lost interest in acting and left the show—focused on Polley’s character, Sarah Stanley, a girl who had lost her mother and was sent to be raised by her maiden aunts. Polley’s mother, casting director and actress Diane Polley, died of cancer the same week the show premiered. The double tragedy of watching Polley play a girl who had lost her mother on screen while at the same time knowing she had actually lost her mother in real life, became part of the mythos of the show and cemented her in the hearts of both the children watching the series and the parents who watched along with them.
Unlike our French speaking Quebecois counterparts, English Canada doesn’t have a star system. We have Canadian actors who flounder a while in government-funded movies and TV shows that no one watches, until they’re cast in something American. It’s only then that we’re proud of them; only then that we’ll claim them as our own.
But Polley was different, Polley stayed. After the success of Road to Avonlea she worked with Canadian auteurs like David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. She traveled abroad for work but stayed tethered to the country and the culture, remaining a proud Torontonian. One year, while my family was in Toronto visiting friends, my father took my sister to the Eaton Centre, Toronto’s mega-mall. There, among the of weekend shoppers, was one face that my father recognized though he didn’t know from where. When it struck him just who it was, he elbowed my sister and pointed her out quietly. Polley was half-way to growing up then, just sliding out of the role of jaded activist she had occupied as a teen. Though we didn’t know it at the time, she was already on her way to becoming a screenwriter and director, dropping out of the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous (the star-making role that kickstarted Kate Hudson’s career) to attend the directing program at CFC, Canada’s most prestigious film school. For a moment they watched this girl-woman, whose face was both completely familiar and yet who was completely unknown, until she drifted further and further away, eaten up by the crowd. It was a moment that became lodged in family lore, the day my father and sister saw the star in real life! But it was also emblematic of how Canadians felt about Polley and why she stayed. She gave us her childhood and in return we supported her quietly, from afar.
Though Polley’s interest in acting waned, she continued to make news; first by adapting “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” an Alice Munro story, into her debut feature, Away From Her (earning two Oscar nominations), and then by releasing a much smaller feature, Take This Waltz (the title taken from a Leonard Cohen song, Polley once again showing her pride in her country by saluting another Canadian artist).
There were five years between Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her, and her follow up Take This Waltz, but only one year between Take This Waltz and her third film, the documentary Stories We Tell. Unlike her previous efforts which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, this film showed up in the Venice, a complete surprise. No one even knew she had been making another film so soon after Take This Waltz. No one knew what it was about.
Around the time my father spotted her in a Toronto mall, Polley was beginning to ask questions about her parentage, specifically about who her father was. From the outside it was a ridiculous question. It was well known that Sarah’s father was Michael Polley, a British born actor who occasionally appeared in bit parts in his daughter’s films. Polley was the youngest of three children born to Michael and Diane, with two other half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage. These were the facts as the world outside knew them. And yet Polley’s older half-brother John, from her mother’s first marriage, had once overheard their mother on the phone confessing that she wasn’t exactly sure who Sarah’s biological father was. This bit of information was spread amongst Polley’s four older siblings, and became something of a family joke with the siblings teasing Polley about who her actual father might be. Michael joined in on the teasing never suspecting that it had any basis in reality. Yet the more the teasing continued, the more Polley began to believe it was true. Relentlessly curious about the mother she had lost so young Polley pursued her suspicions, talking to her mother’s friends and the people she had once worked with. These discussions led her to Harry Gulkin, a producer her mother had had an affair with in Montreal during the run of a play she acted in. Gulkin and Polley met, confirmed their biological connection and began to carve out a space for each other in their lives as father and daughter. Because of Polley’s fame, and her own filial affection for Michael, the father who had raised her, the spaces in which Polley and Gulkin claimed each other as father and daughter were secretive, the connections made in private with only a select few aware of the truth. That is until Polley received a phone call sometime in 2008 from a journalist who wanted to run a piece on Polley’s discovery that Gulkin was her biological father.
In a way Stories We Tell is the version of a story Polley was forced to tell at gunpoint. The documentary, pieced together from Michael Polley’s home movies, 8mm recreations of her mother as directed by Polley, and talking head interviews mostly of Michael Polley, Gulkin, and Polley’s four elder siblings, is her version of events. It’s the story she was forced to tell before it was told for her. Not only were Canadian entertainment journalists eager to break the news, but both Michael Polley and Gulkin, professional storytellers and artists, immediately saw the value of the tale and began independently penning their thoughts and feelings hoping to get them published before Polley herself had truly begun to process what had happened. One gets the sense, through the interviews and fragments of her own e-mails Polley shares, that she would rather have kept the whole thing within the family. Instead, she set out on the multi-year journey to expose her mother’s affair to the public in an attempt to wrest control of her mother’s story from the hands of those who didn’t have a stake in telling it.
There are two voices conspicuously absent from Stories We Tell. One is that of Diane Polley, the central character in the story, her absence explained by the fact that she is dead and no longer has the capacity to speak for herself, to explain or deflect or apologize for her actions and all the chaos that resulted. The other, more curiously, is that of Sarah Polley, who appears only in bits and pieces in the film. She conducted all the interviews herself, appears in people’s recollections and discussions and shows up in front of the camera here and there, a quiet, unassuming, but forceful presence. In one of the more telling moments, talking with her brother John Buchan about their mother’s death, she asks if he knew their mother was dying. He replies that everyone knew and then levies a question back at her. Didn’t she know? No, comes Polley’s voice, small, almost drowned out by Buchan’s own words.
Her one word answer says a lot. Little Sarah Polley, the child star, on the verge of a breakthrough that would ensure her success, ignorant that her mother was about to be ripped away from her. Still, there is no talking head of her sitting before the camera, explaining how she feels, laying her heart bare the way she’s asked her fathers and siblings to, to confess their insecurities; petty angers; and feelings, rational or not, before the steady gaze of her camera. The way Polley must have justified this decision is immediately apparent; the film is her point of view. Nowhere in the film does Polley hide that there are reams of material she had to choose from, other ways in which the story might have been told. Harry Gulkin, sulking unhappily in a talking head, reveals that he feels that the story, such as it were, belongs to him and to Diane. He makes no bones about the fact that he feels that the value of the other players is less, that Michael Polley and Diane’s four other children, should not have the say that they have. Gulkin went so far as to write a treatment of “the story” as he puts it, something that Michael Polley also felt compelled to do almost as soon as the truth about Sarah’s parentage was revealed to him. But Michael’s narrative is the narrative Polley favors; his voiceover, in which he reads aloud the story of Diane’s life, of his life with Diane, is the one included in the film, providing it with a sort of throughline. Conversely, Gulkin’s written text is shown rather than heard in a brief shot, and we learn through emails of Polley’s own displeasure at hearing that Gulkin wanted to publish his version of his love affair with Diane and the child that resulted.
But the mastery that comes with Stories We Tell isn’t in one narrative being favored over the other. It’s in the inconsistencies of the story, the lies and half-truths that people tell themselves just to make it through the day and through their own lives. In Michael Polley’s version of the tale he was a loving husband and provider, a good father who was so close to Sarah that the truth about her biological parentage didn’t matter to him. And yet in the memory of others, Michael was never quite the husband that Diane needed; a sexual prude who never helped with the children or cleaned up the house. A man who wasn’t able to rise to the occasion and take care of his fledgling daughter after his wife died, but instead neglected her. Even in his own recollection of the day Sarah told him that she wasn’t her biological father he remembers her embracing him, a sign of physical affection they hadn’t displayed towards one another in years. He describes this moment as being worth the pain of the revelation that he and his daughter had no genetic connection to one another, a statement at odds with his description of the two being close. And Michael Polley isn’t the only one to offer inconsistent, even deluded explanations for events. Harry Gulkin, still obviously overcome by the loss of the woman he loved and the child they created together, offers up statements completely at odds with other people’s recollection of events. In his mind the time he and Diane spent together was fated, magical, and semi-public. Gulkin seems to have thought that it was an open secret, known to many of Diane’s friends, that he and Diane were lovers and that Sarah was their child. But interviews with Diane’s friends don’t support this, many were surprised to learn that Gulkin was Polley’s father, believing the biological father to have been an actor Diane had a crush on during her time in Montreal.
Early on in the film as Sarah films her father in the sound booth as he records dialogue, Michael Polley asks his daughter with some suspicion what it is exactly she’s doing. Polley responds that the film is an interrogation on stories and how people tell them. And that’s ultimately what Stories We Tell is, a look into the way one family copes with the revelation of a massive secret, a decades old betrayal offered up by a loved one who can no longer give any answers.
While interviewing her older sister, Joanna, about how the revelation of their mother’s affair affected the family, Polley’s sister reveals—in a near-throwaway line—that all of Diane’s daughters ended their marriages after learning that Gulkin was Sarah’s biological father. Like the rest of the interviews, it skirts the line between revelation and denial. Though all the children seem relatively at peace with the turbulent events that shook the lives of the generation before them, the wounds are still there. They echo down through the years, the children doing their best to muddle their way through life as they shoulder the burdens give to them by the imperfect, unhappy people who are their parents.