The winner of a Criticwire poll on “the best young director working today,” Sarah Polley took matters into her hands when her documentary memoir “Stories We Tell” was about to debut at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, with Telluride, Toronto and Sundance 2013 to follow. Transparency is the writer-actress-director’s credo, as you can see in her candid video interview with me, posted below, along with the trailer.
“Stories We Tell,” which has earned raves and is already an award-winner in Canada, is an unfolding and morphing portrait of the Canadian filmmaker’s uncovering of her family history and secrets, and a personal exploration into the smudged line between truth and mythology. The film was snapped up by Roadside Attractions, hit theaters stateside on May 17 and is now available on Netflix, Amazon and other sites. The IDA nominee will screen at DOCS NYC (November 14-21) and will be a robust contender in this year’s competitive documentary awards race.
“I was in a very strange position,” Polley says. “The film was about to be shown, with the expectation of doing interviews. I made the film specifically, I didn’t want it told any other way, with all the voices, all the players involved, five years of laboring and agonizing over telling the story.” She didn’t want to do interviews and “speak without rigor and thoughtfulness. I hate being evasive or closed down. I worried I’d sabotage years of work.”
So she took to the internet and while her young baby was taking a nap, cranked out a blog post explaining why she was not doing interviews or telling the main secrets of the film, especially to the many Canadian journalists who had agreed to keep her family revelations private, and expected in return for her to do interviews with them when the movie came out. When Polley finally showed the film at festivals she was stunned that when people came up to her afterwards it was not to talk about her family mysteries, but their own. It turns out that she struck a universal chord.
At the start, Polley workshopped the movie with Canada’s National Film Board Lab. She watched hundreds of documentaries to figure out the narrative methods she liked (from “The Five Obstructions” and “F is for Fake” to Kurosawa feature “Rashomon”) and musts-to-avoid. She remembers a “terrible sinking moment” when she realized that there “was no model for how to make this film. I had to find my own voice, my way of constructing it.”
So she used multiple points-of-view, including home movies of her mother, who died when she was 11, dramatic recreations, and her father’s own writing, to unfold the story, as well as Super-8 B-roll footage of her conducting interviews with her family. Even showing the process of making the film left things up for grabs and open to interpretation, she says. “You’re constantly questioning what people telling you, constantly questing.”
She admits that the final film, as complex as it turned out to be, was far simpler than some of her 200-page single-spaced treatments. She ditched, for example, an entire framing device with a narrator on a theater stage presenting players, with all her interview subjects in the audience, she admits: “We got three quarters of the way and didn’t need it.”
As Polley immersed herself in the role of detective in her own family, she discovered a great deal about her lost mother. “One of the great joys of making this film was all the things I was learning about her,” she says. “She was growing and changing, it was an amazing thing that happened, she came alive. As I learn more, perceptions change…She was all of the things people say she was, dynamic and vibrant and lovely and warm and a little bit crazy. She was a mass of contradictions, that’s what we’re all like.”
The other thing Polley learned, especially as she threw out her own narrative point-of-view in favor of her family’s, was how to listen: “I don’t know how many opportunities we have in our life to ask them for their versions of things and just listen, not interrupt and argue, just listen. We all have such a personal stake in what happened, constantly interrupting and not hearing the entire story. I loved not being forced into the scenario, it was not my job to have a conversation or convince them of my version. I let details I disagreed with go by. It was an amazing experience I’d love to take with me in real life.”
Throughout, the hardest thing for Polley was trying to let the movie speak for itself without offering up too much information about its revelations. While “it’s not fair to not talk about what people want to talk about,” she says, “I try not to offer up twists.”
Nor do we. See the film.