Up close and personal: Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell' explores her own family's secrets

Sarah Polley would have you believe that the best part of making her documentary, Stories We Tell, is listening to the stories you tell after watching it. She will ask for details. The writer-director, who is also a talented actress, was in New York City in March to do a round of interviews about her autobiographical film, a task she appears to relish. “I like hearing how the movie reminds people of their own family stories,” she says. “It makes me feel that I didn’t spend all those months in this navel-gazing, totally egocentric process.” And you believe her.

In Stories We Tell, which Roadside Attractions opens in May, Polley recounts the life of her mother, Diane Polley. She died of cancer when the filmmaker was 11 years old. Polley began the labyrinthine project unwittingly: During a pleasant conversation with a man she thought to be her mother’s friend, she uncovered a startling fact about her own identity. Through family photos and home videos, including dramatic reenactments that are sometimes part of a mash-up with the videos, as well as interviews with her father, Michael Polley, the four older Polley siblings, and Diane’s friends and lovers, what emerges is the bittersweet tale of a complicated woman who, ironically, remains somewhat elusive.

Polley’s way of work on the documentary was so intuitive that she wonders if she has undergone some fundamental change. “I’m afraid I will never be able to make another straightforward narrative film again,” she says. Earlier in the day, at a photo shoot, Polley discovered that despite her transformation, some moviemaking practices remain unaltered. “Photo shoots remind me of what I dislike most about acting,” she declares, with disarming intimacy. Then, she asks me a question. Looking across at her, a beautiful, petite young woman, with startling blue eyes, it is no surprise that photographers want to drape her in jewels and gowns, but what really sets Polley apart is her acuity and her inquisitiveness.

Stories We Tell is Polley’s first documentary, and her third feature. She is best-known in the U.S. for her roles in art-house films such as Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me (2003) and Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and more recently for her directorial debut, Away from Her (2006), which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. In her native Canada, Polley is a beloved child actress, known for her political activism and her growing international reputation. Her second narrative feature was the much-underrated Take This Waltz (2011), about a young wife whose husband prefers cooking to sex; she leaves him for another man. Polley, who had divorced her husband a few years earlier, says: “Nearly everyone thought that because the story is about a young woman, it was autobiographical.” In fact, Take This Waltz imagines Diane Polley’s first marriage.

In Stories We Tell, Polley recounts the true story of that marriage, which ended in divorce after Diane’s husband charged her with adultery. She lost custody of her two children, John and Susy. They recall that painful separation in the documentary. Diane subsequently married Michael, and while she remained with him until she died, in the film he confesses that he was often not an affectionate husband. “Away from Her obviously has a lot to do with my parents’ life, too,” Polley says. In that movie, a married woman who is losing her memory has an affair with another man. Diane had several lovers, and in retrospect it seems that Polley also drew inspiration from her for her role in My Life Without Me.

In Coixet’s film, Polley plays Ann, a young mother dying of cancer, struggling to fit in the experiences she will miss, while also completing a diary for her children who will grow up without her. One of those experiences is an adulterous affair. “I loved working with Isabel,” Polley declares, “and yes, I thought about my mother all the time. If there is something really terrible about a child losing her mother—and that is very hard—I think that a mother leaving her children behind is much more difficult.” Polley, who remarried last year, turned 34 in January, and gave birth to her first child in February.

“Having a child does change your perspective,” she observes. “For instance, I am happy to leave this documentary behind me.” Polley explains that while it is her habit not to watch her films again for several years, she is not sure about returning to Stories We Tell. “I don’t want to go back there again,” she says. “It was something I had to get over, and it is done now.” The documentary, in which Polley appears on-camera several times in her role as director, is a complex rumination on the nature of identity, her mother’s and her own. In fact, Polley’s unearthing of a secret her mother kept from her husband and children, which forms the dramatic underpinning for Stories We Tell, alters these survivors’ views of themselves as a family.

Underscoring the documentary’s profound effect, Polley’s sister Joanna points out that all three female siblings are recently divorced. Michael, who is perhaps the most vulnerable subject, for reasons it is difficult to explain without a spoiler, was inspired to write the story of his life, from which the film’s narration is adapted. As for Polley, she remembers sleepless nights. “I was tired all the time,” she says, “and there was this moment during post when I wanted to tear the entire film to pieces.” The filmmaker gave family members a tape of the final edit, and asked them to report any “big issues” with the documentary. “I think the worst time of my life was waiting for my father and my brothers and sisters to tell me what they thought,” Polley recalls. “We are all very close.” The family was pleased with the documentary, as were most of the other subjects.

Polley, who possesses the poise we imagine child stars develop early on, also displays a certain hypersensitivity to people and to her surroundings that reveal sensibilities beyond her years. Stories We Tell is the work of a mature director, as well as a woman comfortable with ambiguity. “When I was making this film, I felt there was nothing solid under my feet,” Polley recalls. “For most of it, I did not know where I was going.” Asked about this penchant for stories that dwell in uncertainty, such as Take This Waltz, or ones where the truth is evanescent, as it is in Stories We Tell, Polley is thoughtful. “That’s an interesting question,” she responds. “I certainly don’t like easy judgments. I feel they lead to formulaic art. For instance, when you approach funders for a movie like this, they want to characterize it, to make it either this or that. I understand the need, but it seems to affect everything, the way we think about movies and lots of other things. That’s dangerous.”

We hear Diane Polley’s voice only once in Stories We Tell, when she is singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” While Polley shapes Diane’s legacy throughout the documentary, this audition tape seems to reflect her most deeply felt sentiments about her mother. Diane did not have much feeling for the song, and the clip hints at a lack of self-confidence, but also a child-like quality, which Polley’s siblings recall so vividly in the documentary. The final shots of Stories We Tell are extreme close-ups of Diane’s face, the perspective of a young child remembering a mother’s embrace. If you could smell a frame of film, this one would have a whiff of Diane’s perfume. “I am not sure you can get at the truth of who anyone is,” Polley says. “My mother’s friends say she would like the film, but I wish she could see it.”