Sarah Polley received the shattering news in the fall of 2006, just after launching Away From Her, her Oscar-nominated feature-directing debut. A DNA test confirmed her suspicions that the man she had called dad all her life, Toronto actor Michael Polley, was not her biological father. The youngest of five children born to actress Diane Polley, Sarah learned that she was the product of an affair her mother had with a Montreal movie producer—a secret Diane took to her grave when she died of cancer just after Sarah’s 11th birthday. The results “knocked me on my ass,” says Polley, sipping cider in a café around the corner from her Toronto home. “I had a fever for 2½ weeks after I read that result. It was so strange, to have to completely reimagine where you biologically come from.”
It took Polley almost a year before she could bring herself to tell the man who raised her that she doesn’t share his genes. And as her family secret leaked out, she kept it from the public for another five years, convincing journalists not to report it because this was a story she wanted exclusive rights to. Meanwhile she divorced, remarried, raised a mutant child in the sci-fi horror film Splice, portrayed a depressed mother in Mr. Nobody, directed Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz, and had a baby. But now she has unveiled the puzzle of her parentage in an enthralling documentary, Stories We Tell, which premiered at festivals in Venice and Toronto to the acclaim of critics.
“I never believed the secret could be kept this long,” says Polley, sitting down for her first interview about the movie, scheduled for release Oct. 12. “I realized I’ve gone to all this trouble and people are going to read the story before they see the film anyway. But I made the film to have agency in how the story was going to be told.” Documentaries don’t usually require spoiler alerts. But Stories We Tell, which was produced by the National Film Board, unwraps the riddle of Polley’s birth with such compelling intrigue that “documentary” seems to undersell it.
With a seamless weaving of home movies real and faux, Polley conjures up her mother as a vivacious party girl. Before marrying Michael Polley, she was front-page news when she left her first husband and became the first Canadian mother to lose custody of her children (Sarah’s half-sister and brother). Presenting a Rashomon-like maze of contradictory interviews, Polley puts her entire family on camera, including her four siblings and two dads. The biological one, Harry Gulkin—the producer of the Oscar-nominated Lies My Father Told Me (1975)—met Diane when she was in Montreal starring in a play called Oh Toronto. Gulkin says he was “utterly besotted,” and after she gave birth to Sarah, at 42, “we remained in love for a very long time.”
Both dads vie for custody of the story. But Michael Polley is the one who has to absorb the shock, and as he plunges into memoir-writing—which Sarah has him record as voiceover—he emerges as the more sympathetic of the two. “He received it all with so much equanimity it was unreal,” says Polley, 33. “He immediately saw that problems in their marriage led this to happen. He says, ‘I encouraged her anytime she felt I was inadequate to have an affair, as long as she didn’t leave me.’ ” When Polley was promoting Take This Waltz, someone noted that, like Away From Her, it’s about a stoical husband who faces betrayal without anger. “I realized, that’s my dad,” she says.
Stories We Tell has brought her family together, says Polley, but the five-year struggle to make it “was painful—sitting in an editing room thinking about your childhood, and your mother who’s gone.” Like a child who feels responsible for her parents’ divorce, Polley felt guilty for uncovering the affair. “I somehow conflated finding this out with the idea that I created the situation.”
The director’s next film, which she’s writing while her seven-month-old daughter naps, is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning novel Alias Grace. It’s a 19th-century tale of a Canadian servant convicted of murder, so this one hopefully won’t strike as close to home.