The “Agonizing” Process of Creating “Stories we Tell”

After viewing Sarah Polley’s care-free, easy-going attitude during Stories we Tell. I was very much taken aback when I stumbled across an article outlining how strenuous the filming process was for Sarah. While her situation is unique — creating a film of others essentially piecing her past together without interference — the relaxed and confident demeanor portrayed as she directed her family members and occasionally laughed along with their side remarks seemed genuine. In reality, her persona was masking some deep-rooted anxiety.

Sarah was filming Stories we Tell during the period between her first and second marriage — a troubling transition between two different chapters of her life. Even though the documentary is raw and without a script, it took five years to finish filming, primarily due to Sarah’s anxiety. She took a break from filming Stories we Tell when she became too overwhelmed (most likely from simultaneously dealing with an elusive past, troubling present, and ambiguous future) to create Take This Waltz, a comedy about a couple ending their relationship. Perhaps Sarah was looking for some comedic relief, especially by adding an element of humor to a situation very similar to her own. The article quoted Sarah explaining:

“I asked the NFB if I could take a hiatus and in the hiatus I made Take This Waltz, and it was literally to do something I loved and clear my head. To be actually excited and interested in something as opposed to dreading every day. Stories We Tell was a really agonizing difficult process and Take this Waltz was just joy. The NFB allowed me to take a year and make another film and then I came back to it with fresh eyes.”

Furthermore, Sarah explains the debilitating nature of hearing an “outpouring of raw emotions” from her friends and family, and having to endure listening to each interviewee’s account of her mother’s death time and time again.

“Even though I wasn’t going through it emotionally when I was sitting there — I was very objective and distant about it — I think it got under my skin and made me quite depressed. . . . I just really needed to get away from it.”

Perhaps the style of her documentary underscored her traumatic past even more; while it was her mission to convey the importance of listening to multiple accounts when learning about the past, I can imagine the lack of a single truth to be relatively unsettling, especially in the context of such a personal issue.

Lastly, Sarah mentions her controlling personality, and that she was so focused on planning out the details of the film that she was often “not in the moment.” This leads me to question if her lack of interjections during the interrogation process was entirely an intentional strategy to avoid bias, or a product of her mental distance throughout the filming process. This sensation is ironically very similar to the quote from Alias Grace that is used to set the stage for the documentary:

“When you’re in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness … it’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or to someone else.”

In the midst of her depression and whirlwind of emotions and creative thought while making the documentary, Sarah was not only stitching together the stories of her friends and family, but also creating a new story of her own. Despite the “agony” she suffered while creating Stories we Tell, and the physical sickness she experienced as she awaited the first reviews of the film, Sarah expresses that creating the documentary forced her to constantly reevaluate what she was doing, and was therefore a very rewarding experience.



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