Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Director turns lens on her own family secrets

  • Print

AS much as I like Sarah Polley as an actress and a filmmaker (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), I confess I was leery of her documentary Stories We Tell.

It is the story of her own family, specifically her own surprising biological heritage. After being teased for years by siblings about the lack of a resemblance between herself and the man she called "dad," Polley discovered ex-actor and writer Michael Polley was indeed not her biological father.

Sarah it turns out, was the product of a brief but intense affair between her mother, Diane Polley, and Montreal-based producer Harry Gulkin. It occurred when Diane left the Toronto nest she shared with Michael for a couple of months to participate in a Montreal stage production.

Diane was pregnant when she returned home; because Michael had enjoyed a Montreal visit with benefits during the production, he had no apparent suspicions as to Sarah's paternity. That revelation would come later.

At the beginning of the film, Sarah's own sister wonders aloud whether anyone outside the family will be interested in this potentially tawdry tale, and I initially felt the same way. If I wanted salacious details on the lives of Canadian actors, I'd try to squirm my way through an episode of eTalk.

But it turns out Polley's investigation is both provocative and entertaining.

Much of this has to do with Diane Polley. The actress died of cancer in 1990, when Sarah was just 11 years old. But her presence, whether culled from old CBC footage, home movies, or artful reproductions of home movies, permeates the film with a kind of magic. I doubt a deceased woman has woven such a captivating spell in a movie since Otto Preminger's Laura.

Her own children remember her as a benign force of nature, especially when compared to their more placid, undemonstrative dad, Michael. But her legacy ultimately leads to a kind of stormy chaos among all her children. Sarah in particular is placed in a pickle when a reporter discovered the story of Sarah's biological heritage before she had had an opportunity to tell Michael about the revelation. Subsequently, there is a kind of competition among Sarah, Michael and Harry Gulkin as to who has the best claim to the story itself.

I would be inclined to give benefit of the doubt to Sarah, even if she keeps her own reactions relatively close to the vest. (She apparently doesn't have an opinion when confronted by the fact her mother came within a hair's breadth of having an abortion.)

I do this because her own films are clearly influenced by her family history. Her dramas Away From Her and Take This Waltz are both sympathetic meditations on infidelity. For cinephiles, this documentary gives rich context for her body or work so far.

But it also undeniably has merit as a story in itself. If Polley allows herself to get bogged down by the more ephemeral aspects of storytelling, she knows enough to leave us with a hell of a good punchline.

Other voices

Excerpts of reviews of Stories We Tell:

"(Polley) has transformed the secrets and lies of her own life into glowing artistic truth."

-- Mary Corliss, Time

"The film is oscillating from intriguing to dull, revealing to repetitious, frank to disingenuous and moving to manipulative."

-- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail

"Sarah Polley's brave quest to uncover her family's deepest secrets unfolds like a thriller, one where the resolution is literally part of her DNA."

-- Peter Howell, Toronto Star

Stories We Tell

Directed by Sarah Polley



109 minutes

3 1/2 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2013 D6

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - Four Little Games

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A group of Horese pose for the camera in the early evening light at Southcreek Stables in Stl Norbert Wednessday. Sept  14, 2011 (RUTH BONNEVILLE) / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Local-(Standup photo)- A wood duck swims through the water with fall refections in Kildonan Park Thursday afternoon.

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google