ONE thing seeing Sarah Polley's new film, 'Stories We Tell', does, is get you to think about your own family upbringing and the light and dark shades of communal living over a large number of years. The autobiographical film traces the story of being the youngest of five siblings. Diane, Sarah’s mother, died when Sarah was quite young and a large section of the film deals with the question of whether or not Sarah has the same father as the rest of the Polley kids. There is a large amount of footage, a lot of super 8. Sitting in the Kino, I was amazed at the amount of footage of the family on holidays or at home, playing, interacting, living mostly happily. Then we are exposed to footage of Diane Polley’s funeral. Images of attendees poring over the pages of the funeral tributes. Finally it hit me. A lot of this footage was a recreation. The footage of the children and their parents involved actors recreating family events from the sixties and seventies. There is a lot of contemporary footage, consisting mostly of interviews full of fascinating family anecdotes. But the fact that she went to all that trouble to recreate images of the past- done fantastically well- tells us about her passion for truth and identity. Is the film too personal? Is it really of relevance to anyone other than Polley family and friends? Judging by the fabulous critiques, and the amount of people going to see the film, it would appear that many people find it all interesting like I did, and I think it must be because the film almost forces you to evaluate your own family experiences, and contemplate what your family’s story would look like on the big screen.
On the surface of things my family isn’t anywhere near as interesting as Sarah Polley’s. There was six of us, including father and mother. Three boys and one girl. Three boys growing up in one smallish room, and behind the plaster wall, one girl living in a slightly smaller room next to us. In my room, a bed for the oldest, and a bunk for the next two. Me on the bottom, the light partially obscured, causing hours of night time reading causing me to become almost blind.
We played word games at night. In the day there was a spacious backyard for soccer, and a lounge room filled at one stage by a large billiard table. Most of us- except my father- ate our meals at the kitchen table. Mother always cooked. We played records incessantly. The headphones meant I could play records like ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Stoneground Words’ and ‘The World of Joni Mitchell’ ridiculously loud, damaging my hearing for life.
I remember that at one point I must have felt some sort of dislocation, or lack of connection with where I lived. I cultivated a brief habit of becoming a rock thrower. I would stand at the furthest corner of the backyard and hurl a grey or white pebble as far as I could over the backyard of several neighbours. Then I would peer timidly over the fence to see where my missile landed. The day I saw my pebble miss the bewildered neighbour by centimetres, and crash into the brick frontage behind her, was the day I gave this dangerous pastime.
Every family has its secrets. Some not as many, or as significant, as the Polley family. But even though things sometimes get obscured, I know enough that there are secrets, or taboo subjects, in my family, just like there is in everyone’s. A little digging, and a tiny bit of imagination, and some assuming, and then you have a hotbed of fermenting mystery.