Until recently, multi-talented Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley was probably best known for her early work on the TV series Road to Avonlea and later for roles in films like The Sweet Hereafter, Go, and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. More recently, however, Polley has earned widespread acclaim for her two directorial efforts, 2007’s Away from Her and last year’s Take This Waltz.
Polley continues her impressive work behind the camera in Stories We Tell, a new film that, while similar in theme to her two fiction narratives, is set apart by a couple of distinctions: it’s her first feature documentary, and it’s a decidedly more personal project, exploring the nature of storytelling by revealing a few secrets from her own family’s past. In a recent conversation with RT, Polley shared how difficult the making of the film was for her, why documentaries can never be objective, and what she learned about her family. But first, she gave us her Five Favorite Films, and here they are:
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998; 78% Tomatometer)
The Thin Red Line is my favorite film, and that’s probably the film that had the most impact on me as a human being. I feel like it really rescued me from a depression and gave me a lot of faith in people. I just thought it was beautiful. I saw it when I was nineteen or twenty. I’m a huge fan of Terrence Malick’s work.
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966; 99% Tomatometer)
The Battle of Algiers is a film I just think is the most extraordinary accomplishment and such an effective political piece, and so beautiful. It completely bewilders me every time I see it, how it was accomplished.
RT: Don’t you also have a little bit of a political spirit in you?
I’m interested in politics and I have, at times, been engaged as an activist, so I feel like films that successfully deal with political issues in a way that isn’t too didactic are always really impressive to me.
There Will Be Blood is one that I adore. I think I saw it about four or five times in the theater. I just think Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius. I’ve never seen performances like that, and I’ve never seen something so thoughtfully and beautifully shot.
I love Love and Death by Woody Allen. It’s a movie that, if I’m ever sick or depressed, makes me feel better instantly.
Red by Kieslowski. I love that whole trilogy, but Red, for me, was the most full film. I think it made me think about the world from new angles that I hadn’t before. I think I was about seventeen when I saw it.
Next, Polley talks about the trickiness of crafting a personal documentary, and why she chose to tell the story in such an inventive way.
RT: Stories We Tell was a difficult film for you to make, and I understand there were several points when you almost gave up. What kept you going?
Sarah Polley: I don’t really know, to be honest. I think, probably a sense of obligation because I’d already spent a lot of money on the film, and probably should keep going because the National Film Board (NFB) was counting on me. [laughs] And the collaborators I was working with were so inspiring and amazing and challenging, and I felt like they were pushing me further than I’d ever gone artistically. I felt like I wanted to keep working with them, so while the subject matter and the process of making the film was at times really claustrophobic and difficult, I did feel like it was worth it to keep collaborating with them — The NFB, and my cinematographer Iris [Ng], and my editor Mike [Munn]. It just made it feel worthwhile even if it was kind of a painful process.
RT: This is a documentary that starts out feeling like a memorial or tribute to your late mother, but eventually becomes an exploration of memory and mythmaking and storytelling. It’s kind of a heady topic couched within a fascinating personal story. In a blog post on the NFB’s website, you mentioned that personal documentaries tend to make you “squeamish.” What steps did you take to try and avoid that with Stories We Tell?
SP: I think the truth is that I wasn’t interested in making the film about the story itself. It was about a year and a half after the events that I even began to think about making this into a film. I think that, for me, the way I was able to make a film about my own life was that I was really interested in making a film about storytelling and about memory, and in a way, I had to use my family story to illustrate something that I thought was more universal about why we tell stories, and why we so desperately need to create narrative out of the kind of mess of our lives. That was what made me interested in making the film.
There are some personal docs that I really love. I wasn’t interested in making a traditional personal doc, with, you know, voiceovers stating all my feelings, but it obviously needed to use this sort of personal story to talk about the larger issues I was interested in, which were really about why we tell stories.
RT: Is that part of the reason why we only get small snippets of your voice here?
SP: I think that is why, and I also felt like, for me, it was… In a way, my own version was not interesting to me, and in a strange way, I thought it wouldn’t be that interesting to other people either, because I think what was interesting was the cacophony of all the voices, and trying to find what could be accurate — what could be true — and what could be false in the middle of all that. I also felt like there would be a real injustice to both being the person who is constructing the film and editing the film and making all of those kinds of decisions, and also including my version alongside everybody else’s as though it was going to be equally viewed. I think it would have automatically kind of superseded the other versions, which felt kind of tyrannical or something. [laughs]
RT: You do a great job of parceling out little bits of information that slowly reveal the bigger picture. As a storyteller here yourself, how do you go about deciding effectively what to reveal and when?
SP: I think that was a long process of making decisions. The original structure for the film was very, sort of, Rashomon-esque, where it was going to be me telling my version, my dad telling his version, Harry [Gulkin] telling his version. We weren’t going to keep any secrets; you would know the story off the bat. It was just about the different ways it was being told. It was sort of a later decision in the editing room to see how it would work if we intertwined them all, and then my dad’s narration became the spine of the film through that process.
But there were certainly moments in the editing room where… You know, we had index cards for all of the moments on a bulletin board, and there was this moment where, you know, the story of my mother’s divorce from her first husband and her losing her two kids was obviously at the very beginning of the film to set things up. And there was this moment where I sort of moved that index card to three quarters of the way through the film and just saw what that looked like. And it seemed like kind of a crazy experiment, but at that moment we realized we can be structuring this in such a way that it speaks to what the film’s about, which is that, you think you’re seeing one thing in your life, and then you get a new piece of information about the past that completely changes the context around that thing you thought you understood.
RT: Going back to your father, it turns out he is a pretty great writer after all. Did you get to see much evidence of this, growing up with him?
SP: Yeah, every now and then he would write something small, and I was always astonished by how great a writer he was. It was something my mom really believed in. Even if you read their letters to each other when they were first together, they’re just so beautiful. And so I think it was a real frustration in her life that he didn’t pursue that, and the strange irony is that this information about her coming out is what sort of led him to do that a lot more, and for him, ultimately, through this film, to kind of be recognized as a good writer.
RT: There’s a lot of commentary offered in this film about how storytelling is often selective memory, and it leads the audience to consider the fact that you, as the storyteller here, are doing the same thing, dictating the vision of this story by actively picking and choosing which bits of narrative to include.
SP: I think that was really important to me to not hide behind some guise of, “Oh, I’m making a documentary that is going to be absolute fact and absolute truth,” because the truth is that’s not attainable. No documentary tells the absolute truth as anybody else would tell it. So I think it was really important for me to include the construction of this version in the film, so that it didn’t seem like I’m, in a black and white way, presenting all of these versions in a totally impartial way. That’s just not possible, no matter how hard you try. I didn’t want to pretend that the filmmaking process on any film is anything but very subjective, even if we feel we’re trying to be objective.
RT: I did come away from the film with a specific impression of how things happened, but your interviews do reveal some conflicting elements, which is part of the message you’re trying to convey. When you collected all of your material, did you feel like you had a clearer portrait of your mother, or was that beside the point? Did that even matter?
SP: I did, actually. It wasn’t, maybe, a conscious intention of making the film, but it was an amazing byproduct of the whole experience, to realize I do have so much a fuller picture of her than I did before I started this. Hearing so many people speak about her — sometimes in similar ways, sometimes in contradictory ways — you do start to put together a person in the middle of that mess of thoughts and impressions.
RT: Have your family members had a chance to see it, and if so, what were their reactions?
SP: Everyone’s been really supportive. I think I was expecting a lot more controversy around it, and everybody has come out to the premiere and really supported the film. I don?t think it’s the film anybody else would have made, necessarily, of the same events, and I’m sure people would have emphasized different things or omitted other things, but everyone’s been incredibly supportive of the way I chose to tell this story, which I’ve really appreciated.
RT: Can you see yourself doing another documentary, and if so, is there a dream topic you’d want to cover?
SP: I would love to make another documentary. I have a bunch of ideas, but not anything that is articulate enough to talk about yet. But yeah, for me, I think I’m a bigger fan of documentaries, generally, than I am of narrative fiction films, so I would absolutely love to continue working in this medium. But I have higher standards for documentaries than I do for other kinds of films, so it’s hard for me to get up the nerve to make another one, I think. [laughs]
Stories We Tell opens in limited release this week.