Tell Me a Story: Sarah Polley Tackles the Truth
The decision to venture into documentary directing was not an easy one for writer-director-actress Sarah Polley. Despite having helmed two narrative features in the last six years, Polley admits that directing her first nonfiction project, Stories We Tell, was “like learning how to make a film from scratch. Beyond being a huge fan of documentaries, I knew nothing about the medium,” she admits.
A study of the director's late mother's sometimes secretive life, Stories We Tell simultaneously explores the elusive nature of truth and memory. Serving as both filmmaker and detective, Polley investigates, through interviews with family members and friends, her mother's past and the secrets she kept. Her subjects often elicit contradictory answers to the same questions as each relates their version of their mother's role in the family's mythology. While trying to unravel the paradoxes, Polley ultimately reveals a much more complicated tale about memory and truth.
While Polley says she had a strong sense of the doc's tone, aesthetic and take-away from the day she began working on the project five years ago, she didn't always have a clear idea of what final product was going to look like. "That feeling of control that you have to give up when you make a documentary was really foreign to me," Polley notes. "You don't have that anchor to hold on to the way you do when you make a narrative fiction feature film. While there are always surprises in narratives, it's all within a frame, but with docs that frame is much, much larger. So I had to let go of my expectations and go with what was happening and what people were saying. I had to let the interviews go in directions I didn't necessarily anticipate. So I never had that sense of, ‘OK, now I know exactly what I'm doing."
To help her through the complicated process, Polley joined the inaugural Canadian Film Centre/National Film Board of Canada Documentary Program in 2009. Designed to help accomplished Canadian directors develop documentaries that will advance the genre and achieve critical success, the program partners participants with leading Canadian and international documentarians and craftspeople. "[The lab] really gave me something to work towards," Polley says. "As anyone who has made a documentary knows, you can get lost in the maze of it and it can feel like this protracted mess that's never going to have a focus. So it was great to have some semblance of structure."
The lab also played a key role in helping Polley learn more about the medium. "I had three really experienced filmmakers who were in the lab with me, plus all these amazing mentors, like Wim Wenders and Kevin McMahon," Polley recalls. "It was an incredible environment for making your first documentary."
In addition to Wenders and McMahon, Polley schooled herself by watching "a ton of personal essay documentaries." But she credits Lars Von Trier's The Five Obstructions, Orson Welles' F Is for Fake and her "favorite documentary filmmaker," Alan King, as having the most influence on her nonfiction filmmaking.
"What always struck me about [King's] films was that he refused to make people into heroes or villains and refused to engage with ideas of good and evil," Polley explains. "He's talked about that not just as a decision to veer away from formula in his films, but also as a decision to veer away from something that was harmful in a general sense to the world."
By incorporating a wide variety of voices, archival footage and re-enactments to convey varying accounts of her mother's history, Polley creates a portrait of a woman with many shades of gray. "I think generally with the films that I make, whether they are documentaries or not, I feel like there is actually something irresponsible with painting things as black and white," Polley says. "The best docs I've seen don't ever attempt to do that. They let people be as complex as they can in the timeframe allowed."
The writer-director is able to capture the intricacies of her mother's midlife infidelities as well as the delicate matter of subjective truth by cutting back and forth among talking heads, archival footages and re-creations featuring an actress playing her late mother. Shot on Super 8, the scratchy, silent re-creations can easily be mistaken for archival footage, which was Polley's intention all along. "It was always important for me to create a parallel experience for the audience to the one that I had in discovering this story [about my mother], which was a constant sense of wondering: What was true? What was somebody's memory? What was subjective? What was embellished? And what was fact? That was a constant process for me as I worked my way through this story, both in my life and the filmmaking process. I wanted the format of the film to really mirror those questions within the format itself. So the idea of wondering what was a re-creation and what wasn't, and what was real and what was imagined, was always something that I wanted the film to do."
In order to get the re-creations just right, Polley first shot interviews and then, with editor Mike Munn, intertwined the talking heads with existing archival footage. Polley, cinematographer Iris Ng and Munn divided up the editing sessions so they could shoot the interviews for a few months, edit for several more, shoot and then edit again. Only after several shooting and editing sessions did Polley decide to dive into the production of the re-creations, or what she deems "a feature film shoot for 20 days."
"[The shoot-then-edit scenario] was a really necessary process for this film because there were so many elements and so many pieces to this story," Polley explains. "It was sort of impossible to know what we needed for the re-creations before we knew what we already had."
While many documentary filmmakers long to make their mark in the narrative field, Polley says that she's happy to be part of the nonfiction community. "The truth is, I think I like documentaries infinitely more than I like other kinds of films, and I always have. I can sit through any documentary and be happy to be there, and I don't have that feeling all the time with narrative features. That's for sure."
That said, Polley's standards are high when it comes to the genre. She refuses to make docs just for the sake of making docs. But overall the director seems determined to keep at least one foot in the doc arena.
"I think [documentary filmmaking] is a much more human process," she observes. "There seems to be a lot more room to be a decent human being when you make a doc than when you make other kinds of films. I think the people in the doc community are more human generally. On a basic level I feel it's a better way of working."
Stories We Tell, which opened last week in New York City, opens May 17 in Los Angeles and select cities, through Roadside Attractions.
Addie Morfoot writes about the entertainment industry for Daily Variety, The Wall Street Journal and Adweek. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Marie Claire. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School.