Weekend Watch: Stories We Tell

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes on Sarah Polley’s 2012 tour de force, a documentary about her own family.

07 December 2018 15:08

I suspect that most readers who recognise the name Sarah Polley will know her as the writer and producer of Netflix’s 2017 miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, the story of a domestic servant in the 1840s who was accused of murdering her master and his housekeeper. This, however, is only the latest achievement in Polley’s impressive career. She made her name as a child actor, rising to international fame in the early 1990s when she played the lead role in the CBC television series Road to Avonlea (a period drama set on Prince Edward Island, loosely adapted from novels written by L. M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables). The Disney Channel picked up the show for distribution in the US, though Polley’s teenage political activism didn’t sit well with their squeaky-clean brand and she left the series in 1994. She continued working as an actor, her film credits over the next decade included Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998), Go (Doug Liman, 1999), My Life Without Me (Isabel Coixet, 2003), and Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004).

Then, in her mid-twenties Polley turned her attention to writing and directing, wowing critics and viewers alike with her first project, Away From Her (2006), a masterful and moving adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, about a man (Michael Murphy) who has to watch his Alzheimer’s suffering wife (Julia Christie) fall in love with another patient in the nursing home in which she’s now living. Polley addressed similar themes – marital infidelity and the memories made in romantic relationships – in Take This Waltz (2011), which starred Michelle Williams as a young wife in Toronto who falls in love with her neighbour. Truly the difficult second film, it wasn’t as widely well received as its predecessor – I loved it, but other critics expressed just as vehement a dislike. Luckily for everyone, Polley came back the following year with what’s thus far been the tour de force of her career: the meta-documentary, Stories We Tell (2012).

Despite the fact it was broadly critically acclaimed, as well as the winner of a handful of prizes – including Film of the Year 2013 from the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, the prize money for which was $100,000 – Stories We Tell is nowhere near as well-known as it should be. A few years back, I brought it to the attention of those enrolled in a course I was running at Tate Britain called ‘The Art of Storytelling’ and not a single person in the group had heard of it, let alone seen it. Needless to say, it proved a huge hit.

‘Stories We Tell’ (Sarah Polley, 2012)

On the surface, the film is a deeply personal examination of Polley’s own family history. In brief: Polley’s father Michael, the English-born actor-turned-insurance agent, was married to Diane Polley (mother to Sarah and her four siblings: John, Susy, Mark and Joanna), a Canadian actor-turned-casting director who, according to all who knew her, was the life and soul of the party. Diane fell in love with Michael after seeing him in a production of The Caretaker (Harold Pinter, 1960) in Toronto and she left her first husband for him, a move that lost her the custody of her two eldest children (and bringing her the notoriety of being the first woman in Canada to do so). She went on to have two more children with Michael. Then, in her early forties, she became pregnant with her fifth child, Sarah. Sadly, when Sarah was only eleven, Diane died from cancer. She was 53 years old. The only one of his children still at home, Michael raised Sarah by himself, but there was a running joke in the family that she didn’t look anything like him. The years passed, and nobody thought too much about it, but in her late 20s and deciding to try to find out more about Diane’s life, Polley began work on what would become Stories We Tell.

‘Who cares about our stupid family?’ Joanna asks in one of the film’s earliest scenes. ‘Every family has a story.’ She’s not wrong, there are skeletons in everyone’s closet, but Polley’s film not only manages to make us care deeply about her family; she also does something highly original with her material. Polley isn’t so much interested in the particular story she and the various ‘narrators’ she employs to voice it are telling (I won’t go into details here, but you can probably guess what happens), but rather in the way that telling stories is integral to how we perceive our lives, and that the truth – however important it’s considered by some – is actually so often impossible to pin down.

‘Stories We Tell’ (Sarah Polley, 2012)

‘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, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it,’ recites Michael in the film’s opening scene, reading a quote from Alias Grace. ‘It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.’ When Stories We Tell was released, it would be another five years till Polley’s adaptation of Atwood’s novel premiered on Netflix, but the miniseries had been a long-time coming: Polley was a precocious 17-year-old when she first approached Atwood for the film rights back in the late 90s. Atwood didn’t sell them to her until 2012, and even then, it was reported in The New York Times in October of last year, only after a six-hour meeting in which the younger woman impressed the older with her grasp on it being the ‘ambiguity’ about the story that mattered the most.

That Polley was so concerned with how to accurately render this on the screen was surely due in no small part to the fact that she’d spent the previous five years working on Stories We Tell. Not only does the documentary adamantly refuse to come down in favour of one narrator’s version of events over another’s. Instead, Polley generously indulges her narrators’ sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting narratives. But so too, by means of the audacious way the film is put together – behind the scenes material exposes the film’s scaffolding, original home camera footage that’s seamlessly spliced with dramatised scenes shot with the same Super 8, re-staged key scenes, alongside more traditional talking heads-style interviews – it exposes how memory itself is inherently unreliable, and how we’re all involved in the constant, albeit unconscious process of turning our lives and the lives of others into fictions that give us the illusion of shape and sense.