STORIES WE TELL written and directed by Sarah Polley. A Mongrel Media release. 108 minutes. Opens Friday (October 12). See times.
Last year, Sarah Polley brought her second feature, Take This Waltz, to the Toronto Film Festival. A drama about a woman torn between her husband and the possibility of a new love, it premiered just days after Polley's announcement of her own divorce, remarriage and pregnancy.
"What was so frustrating with Take This Waltz were the constant questions about ‘Is this autobiographical?'" she recalls. "And I so desperately wanted to go, ‘No, I promise you, if I'm going to make something autobiographical it'll be really freakin' obvious,'" she laughs. "I couldn't say anything. It was driving me bananas."
Last month, Polley brought her personal project, Stories We Tell, to TIFF. It's a documentary - mostly - that finds Polley turning her lens on her own family, exploring and recreating her experience of discovering a secret history I wouldn't dream of revealing here. (That said, even if you're aware of said history, trust me; you don't know the half of it.)
In a weirdly spartan room at the Gladstone Hotel last week - we seem to have caught the place mid-redecoration - I ask Polley if she knew what she was getting into when she decided to tell this particular tale.
"I was basically uncomfortable with the idea of this [project] from the moment I set out to make it - and continuing into now," she says. "I didn't really embark on the filmmaking until I felt like I had worked out a lot of the more complex emotional repercussions in my own life."
Once she decided she was ready, though, she went for it.
"I watched every personal documentary I could, and many of them made me queasy; they felt like a form of therapy. There wasn't enough awareness, for me, of what the person's motivations were for making the film. I knew I wanted to avoid that; I wanted to approach it as a documentary filmmaker."
To that end, Polley joined the Canadian Film Centre and the National Film Board's inaugural six-month Feature Documentary Program in 2008 - and then spent four more years, on and off, playing with structure and style, and even treating herself as a character within the story.
"It was an interesting exercise to be able to see yourself as though it weren't you making the film," she says.
"I feel like my thoughts and feelings [are] kind of alluded to, but they weren't what I was interested in sharing - or I think necessarily what people would be interested in knowing about. What was interesting to me was this strange obsession we all have with creating a narrative - needing to have a story, needing to be the one to tell that story, and the fact that we have only this as a weapon to combat the bewildering nature of our family lives - the act of storytelling. Otherwise, it's just such an overwhelming mess."
And now that she's taken Stories We Tell to Venice and Toronto, watching it with audiences, how does she feel about the finished work?
"I feel differently every time I see it," she says. "Every time I see it I try to imagine what other people are seeing, and I can't imagine how people are relating to it, because it feels so specific to my family. But what I've loved is how people are projecting their own family histories onto it. People are mostly coming out thinking about their own families, and not mine. And I really have taken a lot of pleasure in that, the idea of something so specific becoming universal."