Fresh from the San Francisco International Film Festival, Sarah Polley’s third film as director, “Stories We Tell,” is unlike her previous feature films, the superb “Away from Her” and “Take This Waltz.”
But “Stories We Tell” is not just any documentary. It’s a unique, emotional and surprising ride about a powerful event in Polley’s life.
Instead of facts, Polley deals with memory, doubt and a host of other tenuous concepts. As the movie begins, she interviews her sister, who poses the very good question, “Who cares about our family?”
Polley likes that question and does not know the answer.
“My questions about why I was making this film never really ended, and they probably still haven’t,” she said while in town at the festival last month.
In addition to telling her family story, including the death of her mother when she was just 11, Polley includes footage of her father recording narration for the film and images of herself trying to figure out what to do next.
“I felt like it was important to include the construction of this film, the artistic process, and the confusion around that,” she says. “Storytelling is a bit of a mess. It’s a process riddled with self-doubt and intertwined with identity and our presentations of ourselves to others.”
In “Stories We Tell,” Polley interviews Harry Gulkin, who produced the Oscar-nominated “Lies My Father Told Me.” On camera, he explains why he thinks Polley’s film won’t work.
Polley was pleased, though. “He gave me a gift by being so eloquent about what he believed the film should be, and what a film should be generally, and why this wasn’t that. It was an opportunity for me to create a whole parallel story about the film being made and what that meant.”
A former child actress, Polley got involved in the documentary format when she was a teen and beginning to appear in grown-up movies like Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Company did a story on her and asked her to “ do something normal,” like play a CD, while they filmed her.
“I remember doing it and thinking, ‘This is such bulls***.’ It made me absolutely furious,” she says. “But it stuck with me,” she continues. “You can’t do these ridiculous conventions anymore. It’s not respectful to an audience. We’re so far beyond that.”