The secret lives of us


Summary

About halfway through our interview, Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley does a very curious thing. Out of nowhere she asks, ”Are you from Australia originally?” and then spends the next couple of minutes asking me about my own background with apparently genuine interest.
Nanjing Night Net

It’s unusual because, as a rule, interviewees are never interested in the interviewer (which is fair enough – it’s not about us, after all). But then Polley has long ducked conventional expectations and this quirky reversal makes perfect sense when one considers her fascination with families, their stories and how they are told and re-told.

Stories We Tell is an award-winning multi-layered portrait of Polley’s own family and the myth-making surrounding one key event in the past. The story is told in part through interviews with Polley’s siblings, her father, actor Michael Polley, and other family and friends.

At one point, her brother, John Buchan, asks: ”What would you say this documentary is really about?”

Curiously, this key question arises only near the end of the film. And, even now, Polley doesn’t have a neat answer.

”I think it’s something different for everyone,” she says.

It appears that, in a strange way, Polley is still relying on members of the audience to explain her own film to her.

”I feel I discover more of what it’s about by reading what people write about it and hearing people talk about it afterwards.

”I hear much more articulate explanations than I had at the time I was making it or even that I have now,” Polley says.

Stories We Tell is her seventh film as writer/director, in addition to her extensive television and film work. She first shot to prominence in Canada when she starred, aged 12, in 65 episodes of the popular show Road to Avonlea.

It is impossible to outline too closely the central event of Stories We Tell without spoiling it for would-be viewers, but it’s not revealing too much to say the narrative centres on Polley’s mother, who died when Polley was just 11.

Diane Polley was an actress and casting director who captivated pretty much everyone she met with her infectious appetite for life. The story is gradually revealed from multiple points of view through family interviews but also by a mixture of re-staged Super-8 ”home movies” and some genuine footage.

Like Diane herself, Stories We Tell is a film that resists being neatly placed in a category. Is it a documentary, a detective story, a memoir, a family drama … or all of the above?

”The way I thought of it while I was making it was as a hybrid between a documentary and an experimental film,” Polley says. ”I think lots of documentaries now push the boundaries of traditional documentary, so I don’t think this film is original in that sense. I think it fits into a lot of categories. But I find it interesting how so many people see it so differently. Some people see it completely as a documentary and some people don’t see it as a documentary at all.

”I did have a sense that I couldn’t find a model for what I wanted to do. It really excited me, as well as terrified me, that I didn’t have a reference point. I don’t think anyone ever creates anything completely original, but it was as close to original as I was going to get,” Polley says.

In part because of this ambiguity, and also because of the intensely personal and revelatory nature of the story, making the film became an agony of uncertainty for her. It is remarkable that, despite being constantly assailed by doubts over the validity of the project, she persisted with it.

”There was never a moment when I got completely comfortable with the fact I was making the film in the first place,” she says. ”It felt like a real mess to me most of the time. There were so many points of view and we had so much material to work with, it was a pretty bewildering and confusing process right until the end.

”I was telling my husband the whole time I was making it that there was a 98 per cent chance the film would never get finished,” Polley says.

”I just wanted to quit all the time. But I said there is a 2 per cent chance it will get made and I know I will be prouder of it than anything I have ever done, just because of the sheer difficulty of making it.”

A key theme of the film is how, when it comes to stories – big and small – in the lives of families, each family member has their own take on what happened and why.

”At the time I was making it, what was most interesting to me was this idea of storytelling and the many versions made out of the same story,” says Polley.

”And also why we have this attachment to creating a narrative out of our lives and how we deal with the bewildering nature of life by creating stories.”

Polley’s own memory of her mother is hazy, simply because she was so young when she died. But rather than try to establish a ”true” representation of her quixotic parent, she allows each player in the family drama to add their own layer of interpretation of the ”mythic figure”. ”I became really interested in what it means to try and recreate a person through so many images of that person.”

At a purely family level, Polley’s project also came at some personal risk. Old wounds could easily have been reopened. However, in the end, all but one member of the family was happy to take part in the film.

”I was surprised,” admits Polley. ”I think probably the potential risk would be what would attract them, rather than what would scare them away. In that way, they are probably different from a lot of families.”

Still, it was a nervous time for Polley when she finally showed them her work in a series of individual screenings.

”I wanted to hear what they thought and felt before I locked [the] picture,” she says. ”Strangely, nobody had any notes and they were all very supportive. They all felt it was not the story they would have told, but it was the story I was going to tell.

”I was terrified, because I don’t know what I would have done if they had had questions or notes. I don’t think I had thought that through. It was probably the most stressful three weeks of my life.”

In particular, uncovering what turned out to be a big family secret could have taken a severe toll on Polley’s father, Michael. In the end, however, it is he who provides the narrative device through his voiceover to drive along the drama. His response to the revelations is also extraordinary.

”I always knew he saw the world in really unusual ways and not like anyone else,” Polley says. ”But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how gracious and understanding and empathetic he was.”

■ Stories We Tell opens on September 26.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


About halfway through our interview, Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley does a very curious thing. Out of nowhere she asks, ”Are you from Australia originally?” and then spends the next couple of minutes asking me about my own background with apparently genuine interest.
Nanjing Night Net

It’s unusual because, as a rule, interviewees are never interested in the interviewer (which is fair enough – it’s not about us, after all). But then Polley has long ducked conventional expectations and this quirky reversal makes perfect sense when one considers her fascination with families, their stories and how they are told and re-told.

Stories We Tell is an award-winning multi-layered portrait of Polley’s own family and the myth-making surrounding one key event in the past. The story is told in part through interviews with Polley’s siblings, her father, actor Michael Polley, and other family and friends.

At one point, her brother, John Buchan, asks: ”What would you say this documentary is really about?”

Curiously, this key question arises only near the end of the film. And, even now, Polley doesn’t have a neat answer.

”I think it’s something different for everyone,” she says.

It appears that, in a strange way, Polley is still relying on members of the audience to explain her own film to her.

”I feel I discover more of what it’s about by reading what people write about it and hearing people talk about it afterwards.

”I hear much more articulate explanations than I had at the time I was making it or even that I have now,” Polley says.

Stories We Tell is her seventh film as writer/director, in addition to her extensive television and film work. She first shot to prominence in Canada when she starred, aged 12, in 65 episodes of the popular show Road to Avonlea.

It is impossible to outline too closely the central event of Stories We Tell without spoiling it for would-be viewers, but it’s not revealing too much to say the narrative centres on Polley’s mother, who died when Polley was just 11.

Diane Polley was an actress and casting director who captivated pretty much everyone she met with her infectious appetite for life. The story is gradually revealed from multiple points of view through family interviews but also by a mixture of re-staged Super-8 ”home movies” and some genuine footage.

Like Diane herself, Stories We Tell is a film that resists being neatly placed in a category. Is it a documentary, a detective story, a memoir, a family drama … or all of the above?

”The way I thought of it while I was making it was as a hybrid between a documentary and an experimental film,” Polley says. ”I think lots of documentaries now push the boundaries of traditional documentary, so I don’t think this film is original in that sense. I think it fits into a lot of categories. But I find it interesting how so many people see it so differently. Some people see it completely as a documentary and some people don’t see it as a documentary at all.

”I did have a sense that I couldn’t find a model for what I wanted to do. It really excited me, as well as terrified me, that I didn’t have a reference point. I don’t think anyone ever creates anything completely original, but it was as close to original as I was going to get,” Polley says.

In part because of this ambiguity, and also because of the intensely personal and revelatory nature of the story, making the film became an agony of uncertainty for her. It is remarkable that, despite being constantly assailed by doubts over the validity of the project, she persisted with it.

”There was never a moment when I got completely comfortable with the fact I was making the film in the first place,” she says. ”It felt like a real mess to me most of the time. There were so many points of view and we had so much material to work with, it was a pretty bewildering and confusing process right until the end.

”I was telling my husband the whole time I was making it that there was a 98 per cent chance the film would never get finished,” Polley says.

”I just wanted to quit all the time. But I said there is a 2 per cent chance it will get made and I know I will be prouder of it than anything I have ever done, just because of the sheer difficulty of making it.”

A key theme of the film is how, when it comes to stories – big and small – in the lives of families, each family member has their own take on what happened and why.

”At the time I was making it, what was most interesting to me was this idea of storytelling and the many versions made out of the same story,” says Polley.

”And also why we have this attachment to creating a narrative out of our lives and how we deal with the bewildering nature of life by creating stories.”

Polley’s own memory of her mother is hazy, simply because she was so young when she died. But rather than try to establish a ”true” representation of her quixotic parent, she allows each player in the family drama to add their own layer of interpretation of the ”mythic figure”. ”I became really interested in what it means to try and recreate a person through so many images of that person.”

At a purely family level, Polley’s project also came at some personal risk. Old wounds could easily have been reopened. However, in the end, all but one member of the family was happy to take part in the film.

”I was surprised,” admits Polley. ”I think probably the potential risk would be what would attract them, rather than what would scare them away. In that way, they are probably different from a lot of families.”

Still, it was a nervous time for Polley when she finally showed them her work in a series of individual screenings.

”I wanted to hear what they thought and felt before I locked [the] picture,” she says. ”Strangely, nobody had any notes and they were all very supportive. They all felt it was not the story they would have told, but it was the story I was going to tell.

”I was terrified, because I don’t know what I would have done if they had had questions or notes. I don’t think I had thought that through. It was probably the most stressful three weeks of my life.”

In particular, uncovering what turned out to be a big family secret could have taken a severe toll on Polley’s father, Michael. In the end, however, it is he who provides the narrative device through his voiceover to drive along the drama. His response to the revelations is also extraordinary.

”I always knew he saw the world in really unusual ways and not like anyone else,” Polley says. ”But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how gracious and understanding and empathetic he was.”

■ Stories We Tell opens on September 26.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.