Cinemasters: Sarah Polley programme notes

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The films of Sarah Polley are all about remembering and forgetting, the experiences we try to revisit but cannot, no matter how hard we try, and the memories that linger against our will, intrusive and immovable, in the forefront of our minds. Joan Didion famously wrote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’. This is true for Polley’s characters too, although, more precisely, they tell themselves stories in order to remember – to remember who they are, what they have lost, and, ultimately, yes, how to live.

Polley grew up on filmsets, and perhaps this early encounter with the mechanics of being recorded – and the disconnect between what can and cannot be captured on film – is part of the reason why she has always been obsessed with memory, and it’s fragilities, in her work. Her first job as an actor came at age five in the Disney movie One Magic Christmas (1985), but it was her leading role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) a few years later which established her as a recognisable talent. This was quickly followed by the TV series Road to Avonlea, which firmly lodged Polley in the hearts (and memories) of a generation of Canadian kids. Subsequent roles in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Heareafter (1997) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) brought Polley to wider international attention, but since 2010 she has been unofficially retired from acting, instead turning her focus to writing and directing.

In 2022 Polley wrote in her memoir Run Towards the Danger that she had frequently been terrified shooting The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and that a series of botched stunts had left her with lingering trauma. These incidents had been minimised by Gilliam at the time, and when she tried to confront the director with these memories decades later he responded with bafflement. Surely on a filmset, where so much is recorded and when so many people are present, the fallibility of memory shouldn’t be an issue? Yet as Polley’s recounting of this story has revealed, collective memory can be a tricky, twisty thing; we are very good at forgetting things when they do not serve our perceptions of ourselves. In revisiting this incident in her memoir, Polley makes the following observation: ‘I had bought into the glamour of the idea of the enfant terrible director, the out-of-control mad white male genius – a myth that has dominated the film industry’s understanding of what brilliance must necessarily look like. As an adult, I find myself wholly intolerant of the fetishisation of this archetype of genius.’

It is characteristic of Polley that from this autobiographical story of personal trauma she canextract a pin-sharp observation about how power dynamics play out in a wider, inherently patriarchal society. Her films take highly specific, deeply human scenarios - a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a once happy marriage on the rocks, a family secret - and translate those deeply personal stories into something universal, devastating and sometimes uncomfortable.

Polley’s first two films as a writer/director are both nuanced explorations of how memory plays out in relationships. In Away from Her (2006), Fiona (an Academy Award nominated Julie Christie) is forced apart from her husband of 40 years after her diagnosis of dementia. In Take this Waltz (2011), Margot (Michelle Williams) begins to reconsider her marriage after developing feelings for a neighbour. Both center on women in apparently happy relationships who find themselves confronting a gap, a central emptiness in their lives that their stable partners, happy memories and long shared histories can’t quite fill. Love, Polley suggests, is built on shared memories that can be beautiful and comforting, but they can also trap us, keeping us from growth and renewal. Is it ever really possible to leave those memories behind and build something new? Neither film offers easy answers.

Polley’s third film, Stories We Tell (2012) centers on the director’s own mother, another restless woman in search of meaning. This extraordinary documentary follows Polley as she interviews members of her family about their memories of her mother, Diane, a theatre actor who died when Polley was eleven. For years there had been a rumour in the family that Diane had had an affair and that the man who had raised Sarah, Michael Polley, was not her biological father.

In Stories We Tell, Polley attempts to unpack this family secret, and in the process builds a hypnotic meditation on the unreliability and ambivalent power of memory. Every member of the family remembers events differently, and as story unfolds in a chorus of talking heads, Polley struggles to put together the pieces and find a coherent route through the, ‘the shattered glass and burning wood,’ of her personal history. Ultimately we realise Polley’s mission is not so much a search for the truth, as an attempt to reconstruct a lost parent. At the film’s heart stands Diane, captured on Super 8, reflected through many contradictory mirrors, yet, no matter how hard those who loved her try to remember, ultimately unknowable.

Polley’s latest feature comes ten years after Stories We Tell – in the gap she worked in television, writing and producing the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and had children of her own – but it builds on similar ideas about testimony and subjectivity. Women Talking (2023) is an adaptation of a novel by Miriam Toews, inspired by a real-life incident of women in an isolated religious colony who discovered that the men of the community had been secretly drugging and sexually assaulting them over the course of years. From this horrifying true story, Polley builds a powerful, defiantly unsensationalist film set across the course of 24 hours as the women gather to discuss whether to forgive the men, stay and fight, or leave.

Women Talking also unfolds through a polyphony of voices, as the cross generational group of women – incredibly acted by Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy – present their own perspectives. Although circumstances are extreme, Polley’s decision to set the piece almost entirely in one room, unmoored from time and space, suggests the ways in which women have always been put in impossible positions due to the actions of men. It's a powerful and political piece of work, and not an easy watch, but it offers a sense of hope that over time even the most painful memories can be converted into something like healing.

During production Polley put her principles into practice, instituting a strict ten-hour working day, employing an on-set therapist and allowing her actors to break at any time in order to ensure a supportive set. Given what we know about her experiences shooting Baron Munchausen, these accommodations too feel like an attempt to turn a traumatic memory into something positive. Remembering is difficult, memories are slippery, but we have to try – it is only by remembering what has been before, that we can learn, move forward, and perhaps build something better.

Co-written by Rachel Pronger & Lauren Clarke of Invisible Women

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