Actress-writer-director Sarah Polley has never had difficulty telling the truth, just like the spunky little heroine Sally Salt that she played as a child actor in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Disney executives couldn’t persuade Polley to remove a peace symbol for a public appearance during the First Gulf War, and in 2017 her outspoken remarks on the #MeToo movement didn’t stop with individual offenders: “Harvey Weinstein may be the central-casting version of a Hollywood predator, but he was just one festering pustule in a diseased industry.”
Sarah Polley’s writing and directing achievements in Away from Her (2006) and Alias Grace (2017) display her mature talents, and her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell is an even more astonishing case of cinematic truth-telling. Through family interviews and recreations filmed to look like home movies, Polley probes intimate relationships within her family history, such as the sad death of her mother when Sarah was 11. The film’s news-making revelation about Polley’s own birth was confirmed by a DNA test when Sarah was a young adult.
The daringly candid Film Board of Canada production is not an exposé, despite unfolding like a fictional mystery. The central subject is instead the myth-making that was the norm in a family of storytellers and truth-embellishers. The false home movies are completely convincing; Polley chose the actors for their resemblance to her friends and family members at younger ages. Polley’s paternity was kept a close secret until the premiere, a surprise that made Stories We Tell an instant festival sensation. The filmmaker’s revealing ‘investigation of her own life’ won a prodigious number of awards, including a Writer’s Guild award and a $100,000 prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association.
by Glenn Erickson