Sarah Polley on sexism and abuse in TV and film and the ongoing struggle for gender parity

Polley enjoyed the humane feel on the set for the female-led Alias Grace production, but she says sexual harassment in film is an "every single day experience."


In conversations with women in the Canadian film industry over the past year, I picked up off-the-cuff remarks about men in positions of power: decision-makers riding a sugar daddy vibe, dropping flirtatious comments into conversations and changing the temperature from creative collaboration to plain fucking awkward.

That should have been a hint that there’s more.

“I think when there’s a power imbalance, there’s more opportunity for that power to be abused,” explains Alias Grace’s star Sarah Gadon. “Sexual harassment exists in the Canadian film and TV industry. And certainly it’s something that we should be talking about and trying to combat at every level.”

I tell her how I’ve never heard anyone talk explicitly about it. She shakes her head and gives me a “C’mon, man” look before referring to all the whispers that often precede major news: “A lot of people talked about Jian Ghomeshi.”

I pick up the conversation with Alias Grace’s showrunner Sarah Polley, who describes sexual harassment in film as an “every single day experience.” 

She remembers being a nine-year-old on set watching as a camera operator spouted off incredibly sexist comments. She lashed back, “You make me really hate men.” He responded: “You won’t be saying that when you’re 40 and you’ve got cobwebs in your box.”

Later that same day, a female focus puller was crying. She turned to Polley. “If it’s okay, just don’t say things like that because then he takes it out on us all day long.”

That’s one story Polley is ready to share. But she cautions that it’s minor. The other stories are horrifying – stories of not just harassment but assault stories that are not hers alone to tell.

“There are things that would make your blood run cold,” she says. “And women have just had to put up with it.”

She brings up the old scandal regarding Last Tango In Paris that broke out last year as if it were new. The industry expressed shock that director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando conspired to surprise Maria Schneider during a sex scene by using butter.

Polley calls bullshit on “the shock.” She insists that anyone working in the industry would not have been surprised by a story of a great director and brilliant actor expecting an actress to endure humiliation – it comes with the territory.

“There is such fear about not being able to handle the environment of a film set,” says Polley, about why women acclimatize themselves to a culture where demeaning behaviour is normalized.

“There’s a real culture of machismo [on set], even among women, where you don’t want to be the person in tears or complaining. That carries its own stigma.

“There are a million ways in which you are taught to think that this is completely fine and consensual when it absolutely is not. It takes a lot of years before you have words for it, being able to name something. ‘Unwanted.’ ‘Harassment.’ ‘Not consensual.’ These are words that take a long time to attribute to the experience you are having. Most people feel that for the sake of the art or for the sake of the production, someone’s humanity or awareness or willingness or consent comes second.”

Polley is certain she would speak out against the harassment if she had witnessed it today. But she’s 38. That’s how long it’s taken for her to have the confidence to say something and the awareness that something should be said.

In her mid-20s, she could only drum up enough anger to get out of acting. She’d always wanted to write and get behind the camera, and the industry’s sexism was a major reason why she never stepped back in front of it. Considering the way things turn out for women who call out sexual harassment, she understands why they remain silent.

“If you’re surrounded by 60 people who aren’t standing up for you, it does make you question whether you have the right to stand up for yourself. If two or three people would come up to you on a set and say, ‘Hey that was really wrong, we should do something,’ most female actors would say, ‘Absolutely, let’s do something.’ But no one does that. Very few people acknowledge that anything wrong has even happened. That’s the culture. We have to change that, and we can.”

Polley expects that having more female leaders on film sets will bring change. She notes that her Alias Grace producer, Noreen Halpern, wouldn’t put up with five seconds of bad behaviour.

“That’s not because I’m a woman,” says Halpern. “That’s because I believe everyone needs to be treated with respect.” 

Polleydirecting.jpg

When Polley (seen here directing her first film, 2006’s Away From Her) was interviewed for residency at the Canadian Film Centre, one of the male panelists asked her: “Is [directing] something you’re actually serious about or is this something you’re just trying on?”

The rocky road to gender parity

Two months ago, TIFF announced its fundraising campaign Share Her Journey, a commitment to foster opportunities for female filmmakers with training and residency programs. That’s just the latest industry effort aiming to level the playing field for women, who are directing approximately 16 per cent of the films and TV shows in Canada and only 4 per cent of the feature films budgeted over $1 million.

Over the past year, the Canadian Academy, the CBC, the NFB, the CMF and Telefilm have all announced programs to help nudge us closer to gender parity on our screens.

With all these initiatives announced – “little flares” as writer/director Polley calls them – we’re in this weird place where there’s a lot of celebrating without a practical result in sight.

Polley recounts a recent conversation with a female film graduate she met to offer advice and insight into the industry. The graduate told Polley about her male friends who are fiercely competitive with each other because “there are so few opportunities for men right now.”

Again: “THERE ARE SO FEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR MEN!”

“I felt like my brain had been twisted into a pretzel,” says Polley. She goes on to explain how this conversation echoes others she’s been having, where men are grumbling about all the restrictive new measures and women are enjoying a confidence that even Polley never knew.

“The men feel completely disadvantaged and the women feel like the world is their oyster.”

This new scenario isn’t derived from stats or results but pure projection – a scenario that runs counter to Polley’s own experience and the patronizing attitudes she faced when trying to make the shift from actor to director.

Getting her first film made was a constant uphill battle, though she’s not sure how to gauge her experience against those that other women constantly face.

On one hand, you might assume that growing up on film sets as a child actor and being one of Canada’s most iconic faces would grant you more clout and ease of access. But for Polley, it was hard to differentiate whether people were being dismissive because she was a female or an actor.

She remembers her interview for residency at the Canadian Film Centre with a male-dominated panel. One of the panelists interviewing her asked: “The real question for you, Sarah, is this something you’re actually serious about or is this something you’re just trying on?”

The bitter joke here is that the man who posed that question was a former actor who had gone on to direct one film.

And then Polley tells me this about my report on the gender gap in Canadian film from last October: “It really depressed me.

“I had this idea that way more progress was being made,” says Polley, who has been too busy having two kids while working on Alias Grace to notice the stats. She recalls meeting Andrea Arnold at TIFF in 2006, when both women were premiering their feature debuts, Away From Her and Red Road, respectively. For her, the pendulum seemed to be swinging favourably toward female filmmakers. In reality, it remained stagnant.

Now there’s Telefilm’s 50/50 by 2020 plan. When considering funding for projects of equal value, the funder would favour projects directed and/or written by a woman. While the initiative has yet to produce tangible results, the announcement has had a deeply felt impact.

Polley has noticed the blowback among male filmmakers still waiting to leave their mark. They are already competing with established veterans usually favoured with the bulk in Telefilm’s pot. So if only 40 per cent of funding is available for everyone else, they now see that halved by the gender initiatives.

“There’s a whole algorithm going on in people’s heads right now about how little opportunity there’s going to be for male filmmakers,” says Polley. “I get it. There’s a lot of really talented male filmmakers out there who still haven’t had their films made and they are frustrated by this. It’s so hard to get a film made – and it’s such an irrational thing to choose to do with your life – that any obstacle put in your way seems like such a terror. It’s just that those obstacles have always been there for everyone else.”

Polley is sympathetic but also excited by how viscerally these decisions are being felt by a younger generation.

“It just goes to show how important these symbolic gestures are,” she says. “Doing anything in an official capacity has an enormous impact on people who are just starting out and looking ahead. People see their futures differently.”

And then there’s Alias Grace, not a result of these initiatives but the extremely rare instance where women can buck the norm and set an inspiring example of how these things can be done. But Polley is still not quite ready to celebrate.

“It’s all women,” says Polley. “That’s great. But it’s also all white women.”

Polley’s been doing a bit of soul-searching lately, watching the fight for representation and reflecting on what she has yet to do to on that front, how she can make space for more representation. Absolutely, Alias Grace is something to celebrate, but Polley wants that momentum to assist with the next obstacle.

She’s noticed how the fight for inclusivity is often co-opted by white feminism, where debates regarding representation often segregate diversity as a separate issue to be dealt with later.

“That’s something that the same people who are fighting for gender aren’t being as loud about,” says Polley. “It’s about race, and it’s also about socioeconomic diversity. How many filmmakers do you know who didn’t come from some amount of privilege? I’m not interested in only hearing voices of the affluent.”

Polley knows that she’s not the right person to tell stories on behalf of people of colour. She knows she could never fully comprehend what it is to be marginalized. “Whiteness has an ignorance that is bottomless,” she says.

But she also knows that – in a Canadian film industry where engaging in politics comes off as a bit uncouth – she shares in the responsibility to make room for those underrepresented voices. And now that her 20-year venture to bring Alias Grace to the screen is complete, she’s already busy figuring out what comes next.

“I don’t think I will skirt around these things any more,” says Polley. “I think I’m done trying to make elegant films that subtly talk about something. This isn’t the time for that.”

See Alice Grace review here and a story about the making of the miniseries here.

movies@nowtoronto.com | @justsayrad

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