Sarah Polley and the Elusivity of the Canadian Auteur

By Max von Schilling

*CW: This article contains mentions of a film plot that includes sexual abuse* 


Much like the rest of the world, Canada has long been starved of strong Female voices in its film industry, no doubt because of the gatekeepers in place that have long kept them out. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Deepa Mehta or Mireille Dansereau, but few of these directors have been widely recognized on a global scale as Sarah Polley.


Beginning her career as a child actor, she was launched to stardom in Canada and gained international recognition from films such as Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. As she transitioned to adulthood, so too did her career aspirations change. Moving away from acting, she soon began to write and direct her own short films, eventually landing on making her debut feature, Away from Her, in 2006. 


The film tells the story of an elderly married couple with no kids who must reckon with the wife’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Soon after being put in a long-term care facility, she begins to lose all memory of her husband entirely. With exceptionally tender performances given by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, it is quietly devastating, viscerally and accurately replicating the world of care homes, as well as the people that inhabit them. My own experiences with loved ones in these facilities—including what I believe to be the very one where the film was shot—resulted in a wildly moving experience, one that I’m sure would not be unique to me. The film’s emotional potency doesn’t just lie in its depiction of love either, but in how it explores the guilt one accumulates over the course of a life lived and a relationship experienced. So too is the topic of grieving people, memories, and moments that have and soon will come to pass broached, much through Pinsent’s character and his coming to terms with the ways he feels he has failed his wife. 


It immediately bears the markings of a natural filmmaker, never exploiting the horrific disease at the center, but instead depicting an incredible amount of naturalism and patience, allowing the characters and the audience the space and time to work through the devastating events of the film. 


After a run of screenings across the biggest film festivals of the year, it ended up garnering her an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay—one of the few times a Canadian film has been recognized down south of our border. Polley sits in a unique position, joining the likes of the aforementioned Egoyan and Cronenberg to become recognized as a distinctly Canadian auteur. Historically, the Canadian film industry has been so underfunded and disrespected that the filmmaking talent of this country has jumped over to Hollywood in order to ensure larger budgets and genuine career aspirations. The likes of James Cameron and Denis Villeneuve, the latter of which began making films in Quebec, have both transitioned to American blockbuster filmmaking, yet to return to their home country for another film—and who can blame them? With the limited resources at their disposal, the move to the States was inarguably the best career decision they made, launching them to another sphere of fame and artistry. And yet, it does nothing to bolster the Canadian film industry on its own, outside of clearly showing that we have talent, but simply as a feeder program for the “big leagues.” 


Moving towards her two follow-up films, Polley wrote and directed Take This Waltz which utilized recognizable American names in three of its four lead roles. The film was not as entirely successful as her debut, ultimately feeling preserved in its 2011 release window with the hipster whimsy that was so prevalent in independent films of the time. It’s instead her third feature film, Stories We Tell, that continued to build her international reputation and, yet again, her appearance as a Canadian filmmaker through and through. A first-time documentary for Polley, the film explores the history of her family and the unbelievable truth behind the circumstances of her birth & childhood. Through the course of the film, we learn that she was the result of an affair her mother had, leading to revelations within the family. The premise itself is incredibly intriguing, but the way that Polley ties together the manufactured reality of her childhood with the manufactured reality of the documentary form lifts the film to country, genre, and decade-defining cinema—no exaggeration, I promise. It’s an illuminating experience to observe, a thought shared by numerous critics across Canada and the world as Stories We Tell was heavily lauded both in the year of its release and in retrospect of the decade. The BBC even went on to label it as the 70th-best film of the century, so far, in 2016.


And yet, after all this momentum from releasing a universally heralded documentary … Polley seemingly disappeared. From 2013 to 2020, very little news from Polley was heard. It was announced she was writing a screenplay for a remake of Little Women—the very one Greta Gerwig would end up writing and directing herself—and she wrote all 6 episodes to an Alias Grace miniseries, but she was curiously missing from behind the camera outside of the scripts. It was later revealed in her excellent 2022 memoir, Run Towards the Danger, that she had suffered a debilitating concussion that forced her to re-learn how to live her life day-to-day, putting a pause on any and all projects for that recovery process. 


With that in mind, it was all the more exciting when she announced a new project set to shoot in 2021, an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ Women Talking. Important to note, however, that unlike her previous three films, this project was funded from the United States, a massive shift from her previously solid roots to Canada. This has no inherent bearing on the film itself—which, for the record, was shot in and around Southern Ontario—but makes all the difference in discussing Polley as a Canadian filmmaker. Working in the American system, she is no longer explicitly making art that can be recognized as solely Canadian, especially with a film that doesn’t take place there either. In accessing the resources available by working in Hollywood, she is removing the wonderful specificity of her previous work, still delving into issues she sees as important, but in a broader way. 


The film depicts a group of Mennonite women who have sustained years of sexual abuse at the hands of the men in their colony and must decide whether they will leave their homes in search of safety, or continue to be victims of this systemic horror. It touches on classic Polley themes of womanhood, family, and the nuance of love, all through the prism of this isolated community. As much as you can certainly see Polley relearning her filmmaking skills throughout, it’s among the better films released in 2022, ultimately culminating in the biggest moment of her career thus far. 


On March 12th, 2023, Sarah Polley became an Oscar winner.


For her screenplay adaptation of the novel, Polley was given her laurels, celebrated not only for her film from that year but also for her career as an unyielding, strong female voice, respected for her work across the world. It was a crowning achievement for anyone, but especially so for an artist who has conducted most of her work out of Canada—a rare feat that has yet to be accomplished by most filmmakers outside of Denys Arcand. 


And what’s next for Polley, coming out on top of the world after an extremely successful American film? Well, it’s quite possibly the most disappointing route she could’ve chosen. Much like many a successful young filmmaker, she has been brought into the Disney pipeline, ultimately tapped to direct a “live-action” remake of Bambi. Working in an ecosystem like that, one so hell-bent on corporate control and filmmaking by committee is effectively like putting a muzzle on an artist. They’re not allowed to properly express themselves outside of what is determined as commercial. One only has to look at Tim Burton’s Dumbo, Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio, or David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy, all films directed by filmmakers with clear visions that are reduced to recreating the magic of animation in an airless vacuum of computer-generated imagery. 


I sincerely hope that Polley does not end up making this film, lest she fall to the same fate as Barry Jenkins who, coming off of two of the best films of the decade in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, opted to direct the sequel to the 2019 version of The Lion King. 6 years of potential new Jenkins films, works that could’ve defined the culture of filmmaking in the way that his prior films had, gone, with his energy focused a soulless sequel to soulless remake. I’d hate to see Polley’s voice restricted in that same way, another repeat of her unfortunate concussion preventing her from working. It is, of course, entirely possible that Jenkins’ film and Polley’s Bambi could be great, but the track record of live-action Disney films doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. And yet, I’ll still watch it. Polley is enough of an artist with a unique, important voice that I trust her choices. And, as much as it may be disappointing, I have to convince myself there is some reason she chose to work on this beyond monetary gain. If it’s to ensure her future as a filmmaker, especially as one in her own country, so be it. 


I so greatly admire Polley’s early career, sticking to her roots as a Canadian and the desire to bolster its artistic reputation. In the current filmmaking economy, I can’t exactly begrudge anyone for taking the money where they can find it, but above all else, I hope she does not forget to return to where she came from. Canada is so lacking in role models of filmmakers who are successful from their work in this country. There’s something wrong with the fact that the idea of success for so many young Canadian artists is to leave their home country. In the end, I can’t resist the fact that, whatever story Polley decides to tell next, be it Canadian or American, I’ll be there, having clearly marked herself as an artist who puts her voice above all else.


As a quick afterward: part of the goal of my series of writings here is to illustrate where you can watch these great Canadian films, often in an easier fashion than one might expect. For example, the four films directed by Polley can be found in the following locations:

Away from Her: Netflix, Kanopy, CBC Gem

Take This Waltz: Netflix, Kanopy, Tubi, CBC Gem

Stories We Tell: Netflix, Kanopy, CBC Gem, NFB

Women Talking: Amazon Prime


Here are the locations where you can watch the other Canadian films mentioned:

Exotica: Rental via Usual Platforms or as a DVD from the Toronto Public Library

The Sweet Hereafter: Criterion Channel, CBC Gem

eXistenZ: Rental via Usual Platforms or as a DVD from the Toronto Public Library

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