Content Warning – this post contains a mention of sexual violence.
I was cooped up with my oldest sister in an Airbnb in Toronto in February 2021, and one night, she turned to me very seriously and said something along the lines of, “Do you want to watch this documentary, Stories We Tell, with me? It’s about this filmmaker, Sarah Polley’s mother, who died when she was very young, and her mother being remembered through interviews and home videos of over a dozen close loved ones, and they unearth a deep but sort of universally accepted secret about the filmmaker’s mother and herself? We’re both going to cry, but it fundamentally changed how I see storytelling and memories.”
And reader, with that glowing recommendation, we did indeed cry and it too rocked my world. Sarah Polley made Stories We Tell in 2012, and it is an incredibly complex and beautiful portrait of a family. The documentary is told almost entirely by interviews, and Polley actively tries not to participate on screen and, instead, to focus on other’s memories to tell the story of her mother and her family.
I always thought that was such a challenging thing to try to do, and you see how Polley is pushed into being on screen and implicating herself in the story. I don’t know if it was an attempt at objectivity, but if it was, she gently shows that not only is objectivity rarely possible when it comes to matters of the heart, the narrative actually gets better when you allow yourself to take part in it, and enrich it with your own perspective and being brave enough to ask difficult questions about your own experiences.
It’s so fascinating to see how different family members or friends will recount the same family memories of parties or get togethers, but some people focus on different details of the same event. It’s a beautiful way to think about a family, to think about how memories exist in so many ways, and the documentary is really just incredibly moving to witness.
Sarah Polley is a fantastic actor, writer, filmmaker, activist, and general Canadian treasure. After reading Polley’s new collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, I am again moved by her artistic and personal commitment to the preciousness of memories, stories, and how worthwhile it is to be brave in your own life, however that may look.
These poetic and often very funny essays recount her childhood fears, a lifetime of health issues, scoliosis, losing her mother, her coming of age, and her experiences as a child actor. She writes candidly and intensely about the disorienting experiences of health issues like scoliosis, high-risk pregnancy, and post-concussive syndrome. She also recounts her recent excavation of memories of being sexually assaulted as a teenager by Jian Ghomeshi. It is harrowing and it speaks to the complexity and painfulness of memories, much like Chanel Miller’s Know My Name does.
She says in her introduction: “These stories don’t add up to a portrait of a life, or even a snapshot of one. They are about the transformative power of an ever-evolving relationship to memory. Telling them is a form of running towards the danger.”
To Polley, “running towards the danger” is actually her doctor’s advice while she was struggling with post-concussive symptoms. She says, “In order for my brain to recover from a traumatic injury, I had to retain it to strength by charging towards activities that triggered my symptoms…this was a paradigm shift for me – to greet and welcome the things I had previously avoided.” This is really what I think her ethos is all about, so if you’re interested in that, you will love Polley’s work.
If your heart is feeling weary and disconnected, I recommend a double feature of watching Stories We Tell, with tissues on hand, followed up with a few essays from Run Towards the Danger.
Photo Credit: Victoria Will