(A different version of this review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 26 September 2013.)
In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects, all of which have centred on the theme of adultery in marriage. In the heartbreaking “Away From Her”, Julie Christie stars as a dementia patient who develops a romantic relationship with another resident of her nursing home, totally forgetting her husband, to his great dismay. “Take This Waltz” – the title is taken from the Leonard Cohen song – also portrays a marriage in crisis. Seth Rogen stars as Lou Rubin, whose wife (Michelle Williams) leaves him for another man.
With careful plotting and emotional honesty, Polley’s first two directorial outings painfully detailed the impact of adultery on marriages. But those earlier films did not have the challenge which Polley set herself in “Stories We Tell”, her documentary about her family’s history. Polley’s interest in this film is not just artistic; it’s about the uncovering of a long-unacknowledged family secret – her late mother’s affair with a fellow Canadian actor.
And the story is very personal, because the adulterous relationship that “Stories We Tell” explores is one that produced Sarah herself. The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father. Some years ago, after her mother Diane died in 1990, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Canadian Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal. Ironically, the title of Gulkin’s most famous film, the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning “Lies My Father Told Me” (1975), has an eerie resonance to the “lies” that Sarah Polley was told about her real father when growing up.
“Stories We Tell” uses family archives, interviews with siblings and family friends, along re-created scenes from Sarah’s childhood to investigate this unravelling of family secrets. Polley shot the recreated scenes with actors and a Super-8 camera, achieving a verisimilitude that adds profoundly to the impact of “Stories We Tell”. But don’t be fooled: this is “manufactured memory”, based on the stories that people tell.
Transcending the limitations of the usual personal documentary, Polley is, we come to realise, asking some “big” questions. Are we all just re-creating memories to suit our own purposes? How much did her father know, and when did he know it? Why did her mother never tell her? These are great questions; the fact that we do not have reliable answers makes Polley’s film memorable, because she knows that each person is creating their own narrative to suit their own emotional needs. Watching this film is about investigating a mystery for which there are no definite answers.
A number of fictional films have portrayed stories of “found” Jewish identity: the 2010 British comedy “The Infidel” explored what happened when a British Muslim found out that he was actually Jewish. Unfortunately, Polley skips some of the most interesting parts: what, exactly, does having a Jewish biological father mean to her? The film shows Sarah at a Passover seder with Gulkin, but we never quite know if this new-found identity has produced any changes in her.
Does Polley’s fascination with adultery – reflected in both of her dramatic features, completed before “Stories We Tell” – result from her own personal history? Was there any particular reason that she made the Seth Rogen’s character Jewish in “Take This Waltz”? We do not know.
Despite – or perhaps, because of – these unanswered questions, “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable stories you will see on film this year.