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Family Secrets

By January 10, 2013 Film, Performance

“Who cares about our stupid family?”

That’s one question asked of director Sarah Polley by one of her siblings early on in her acclaimed documentary, Stories We Tell.

Clearly, one group cares plenty, enough to award Polley a $100,000 prize. The Toronto Film Critics Association awarded the director the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award last night at their annual gala. The film is currently screening at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema in Toronto.

I was at the film’s Canadian premiere at TIFF in September. So was her family, all herded up on stage with the thirty-four-year-old Polley. I watched their faces and tried to imagine what was going through their heads after seeing their family’s history splayed on screen for the world to behold. I was reeling after sitting through a deeply personal story, one that revealed a family secret.

In 2006, Polley discovered she was the product of an affair. She hoped to keep it a secret but a year later, a friend tipped her off that a journalist had got hold of the story.  Polley concluded that she had to tell the story in her own words. The result is a technically brilliant film, a series of family interviews and super-8 home movies of her parents and especially her mother, casting agent/actress Diane Polley, who died of cancer when Sarah was eleven. Also used throughout are bits and pieces of her father, actor Michael Polley, reading to the camera from his own memoir after he discovered that he was not Polley’s biological father.

Polley pulls all these elements together like a cool therapist. In a blog posting before the TIFF screening, the director wrote that the film tormented her during the five years it took to complete, but was driven by her search to discover how legend becomes truth in family histories.

Whatever my own feelings are about the events that are outlined, about the many dynamic and complicated players or the stunning, vibrant woman my mother was, they are ephemeral, constantly out of my grasp, they change as the years pass. (I declined to use a “voice of God” first person voice over narration because it felt false, self-involved, and besides the point). But I found I could lose myself in the words of the people closest to me. I can feel and hear and see their histories, and I wanted to get lost, immerse myself in those words, and be a detective in my own life and family. Anything I want to say myself about this part of my life is said in the film. It’s a search still, a search for meaning, truth, for whether there can ever be a truth.”

Also on the blog was this from Polley:

Personal documentaries have always made me a bit squeamish.

That’s exactly how I felt. While I could admire the film and admit to being lured into the unfolding, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that somehow it all was just Too Much Information. Are not some things sacred to family vaults? Like Polley, I have four siblings and we know all about divided storytelling. Just about any story told in our clan can be disputed by one of us as inaccurate. We see the world through a particular lens and thus, our memories are framed in various tints. What Polley has attempted is to showcase the rainbow. She has left out her own thoughts, perhaps because, as she indicates above, they are ephemeral.

I do love the title.

Stories-the way we make sense of our world.

We-each of us contribute to our own histories.

Tell-that’s my m.o right here, right now.

Other film bits:

  • Razzie award nominations are out for worst pics of 2012 and leading the nominations is Breaking Dawn Part 2. Looks like vampires really do suck.

  • Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln scooped the most BAFTA nominations today but there will be no top Brit honour for Spielberg himself: he was shut out of nominations for best director. Maybe he’ll feel better Thursday morning when Oscar nominations are announced.

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