Considering the unflinching honesty of Sarah Polley and the 'Stories' she's told
One of Canada's most iconic artists is the focus of this weekend's The Filmmakers
This is part of a series of essays by panellists featured on the new CBC Arts talk show The Filmmakers. A panellist from each episode writes about the film being featured this week, which this week is CBC's own film critic Eli Glasner discussing Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell. You can watch Glasner alongside journalist and documentary filmmaker Francine Pelletier and filmmaker and the National Film Board of Canada's Anita Lee in the above video, and watch the entire episode this Saturday at 8:30pm (9pm NT) on CBC Television or online at cbc.ca/watch.
"When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness."
In his beautiful rolling baritone, those are the words spoken by Michael Polley — Sarah Polley's father — that begin the documentary Stories We Tell. The text, from Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace, is as apt as ever.
Our own stories are a roaring confusion where we are all irrevocably trapped in the tumult of ourselves — but a great work of art has the power to change perspectives. This is what makes Polley's 2012 film so remarkable: it begins with her own personal experience, but in the end, it becomes a universal meditation on memory.
I recently had the pleasure of revisiting the award-winning documentary as member of the panel on the new CBC TV series The Filmmakers with producer Anita Lee, journalist Francine Pelletier, myself and host Johanna Schneller, a well-known film critic.
For a film exploring the hidden history of Polley's parents Michael and Diane, Stories We Tell walks a dazzling tightrope, teasing out Polley's own backstory under layers of meta moviemaking. The camera exposes the process, Polley coaching her father's performance while a Greek chorus of siblings and friends share their recollections.
But one of the most surprising elements of Stories We Tell is that Sarah Polley agreed to make it. As she told Schellner on The Filmmakers : "I don't think I ever really wanted a lot of attention from people I don't know."
Unlike many actors, Polley didn't want to be famous. She'd already had a taste of child stardom from her role in Road to Avonlea and had had her fill of a life in the public eye. As NFB producer Anita Lee explained during the panel: "The challenge for Sarah was that Sarah actually didn't want to be in the film."
In a way, she got her wish. Although Stories We Tell is her story, for much of the film Polley is on the periphery, lurking off camera, calmly interrogating her sisters and brothers and teasing out their version of events. It's only near the end as the ripples from the revelations have subsided that Polley turns the lens on herself.
As I said when I originally reviewed it, the result is one of the most captivating documentaries in a decade. The danger with this kind of postmodern approach is that it can appear as a dry academic exercise. But Polley brought to her own story the rigour she's applied to all her projects — to astonishing effect.
With her films Away From Her and Take this Waltz, Polley challenged our ideas on aging and fidelity. Here she challenges herself, deconstructing her family's own myths with a director's eye for emotion.
At the outset, what thrilled me about Stories We Tell was the construction: the warm and witty way Polley introduced us to her family; the faux footage of Super-8 home movies; the captivating archival tape of her mother Diane singing "Ain't Misbehavin'". As with her narrative films, the recurring theme one of unflinching honesty. This is a film where you see the seams — the subjects fidgeting in frame as the roaring confusion is resolved.