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A New Approach to Storytelling
The choice of making this project with the National Film Board of Canada was deliberate because Polley wanted -- and was given -- the latitude to experiment.

When she first approached NFB Ontario Centre producer Anita Lee in 2008, the film's concept was undefined beyond the idea of simply exploring how families remember their own histories. The challenge was to approach the narrative in a manner that allowed Polley to investigate how and why there are typically so many varying accounts of a family's history.

"I think it's a universal thing in every family, that people have their own specific versions of pivotal events or even small memories," said Polley. "They are 100 percent certain that their recollections are the truth because whatever the truth is, as they recall it, has formed them and it is part of their history. Discrepancies in memory preoccupy families, and the idea of this fascinated me."

The absence of form was unusual for Polley; she is accustomed to the rigorous discipline of making fiction films. "With this film, I was slowly discovering what I was doing as I was making it. With each interview and each shoot, I was putting together what I ultimately wanted to do," said Polley. To arrive at this new mindset, Polley had to deconstruct the techniques she'd developed during her career -- which has evolved from actress to screenwriter to director of feature films -- and trust her instincts.

Choosing the film's point of view was a significant decision for Polley. "The role I play in this is the explorer and the filmmaker. That was key for me to be able to justify it to myself," she explained.

After starting development of Stories We Tell at the NFB, Polley joined the inaugural CFC/NFB Documentary Program -- a unique laboratory for the development of successful documentaries that took place in the first half of 2009. "The Doc Lab at CFC was an amazing development process because I'd never made a film that wasn't fiction. I had three really experienced filmmakers who were in the lab with me, plus all these amazing mentors, like Wim Wenders and Kevin McMahon. It was an incredible environment for making your first documentary," she noted.

Working closely with Lee, as well as director of cinematography Iris Ng and editor Mike Munn, they divided up the editing sessions so that they could shoot for a few months, edit for several months, then shoot, then edit again. The film morphed into something completely different from the original idea, and Polley took her experimentation with tone, visuals and energy farther than she has ever gone before. It had a transformative impact on Polley herself: "I don't know how it has changed me, but I know it has. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done and the most rewarding in terms of the result."

Stories We Tell is about looking back into the past, a perspective enhanced by the decision to shoot partially on Super 8. "The Super 8 film format is loaded," said Lee. "It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It's a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people's basements for the right Super 8 camera."

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