June 21, 2024 | Alumni

One of Canada’s most eminent filmmakers, Sarah Polley receives U of T honorary degree

By Scott Anderson

Sarah Polley on stage in a gown receiving her degree

Photo by Lisa Sakulensky.

A celebrated actor, director, author and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Sarah Polley has earned a reputation as one of Canada’s most thoughtful and influential filmmakers. She explores themes of intimacy and memory, loss and resilience, and uses her platform to speak up against injustice.

Today, for her prodigious talent in the arts and her steadfast commitment to equity and fairness, Polley will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto.

Born in Toronto in 1979, Polley began her career in entertainment as a child actor. At age eight, she was cast as a lead character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But the experience – which she says involved working 18-hour days and at times left her frightened and in tears – influenced her acting journey: it soured her on big Hollywood productions and led her to focus on smaller, often Canadian projects. “Baron Munchausen really defined me in terms of never really wanting to be on huge films ever,” she told the New York Times in 2007.

Polley came to widespread attention in 1990, starring as the lead in the CBC series Road to Avonlea, for which she was nominated for three Gemini Awards. Simultaneous with the success, though, came profound loss: shortly after the show’s debut – and just two days after she turned 11 – her mother, Diane Polley (also an actor), died of cancer. A few months later, Polley developed scoliosis, leaving her wearing a brace and undergoing an operation.

After a lengthy recovery, she continued acting but was uncommitted to it as a career. (She once called it a “frivolous thing to do with your life.”) By age 17, she dropped out of high school and left the entertainment industry to devote herself to political causes. Already involved with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, she became a member of the Ontario NDP.

Within months, she felt her singular focus on activism was making her, as she said in the New York Times interview, “boring, dogmatic, narrow,” so when director Atom Egoyan offered her the lead role in The Sweet Hereafter, she accepted, thinking it would provide a short break from her advocacy.

But the film was a critical success – and Hollywood came calling. She took roles in Go and Guinevere, then dropped out of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous during rehearsals, feeling like she had taken the part by mistake. “Every day, it felt less and less like something I could pull off,” she told the New York Times.

From acting to writing and directing

She took some time to consider her next move and then, in 2001, at age 22, enrolled at the Canadian Film Centre, where she directed two shorts. The experience set in motion a transition from acting to writing and directing.

Polley’s debut feature, Away from Her (2006), adapted from an Alice Munro short story, tells the affecting story of an elderly couple whose marriage comes under strain as the wife develops Alzheimer’s disease. It earned Polley an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay and established her as a force in filmmaking.

Her next two films, Take This Waltz (2011) and the documentary Stories We Tell (2012) cemented her reputation as a director with a deep empathy for her subjects. Stories We Tell delves into Polley’s own family history, using interviews and re-enactments to reveal a long-held family secret. 

In 2019, Polley was approached to adapt and direct a film version of the novel Women Talking, by Miriam Toews, inspired by a true story about the horrific sexual abuse of women and girls in a Mennonite colony.  She said in a New Yorker interview that the hardest part of the Women Talking shoot came during a scene when one of the characters talks about how men in the community got the women to doubt themselves. “That came from the experience of talking to so many women, and that feeling of being made to seem, or feel, crazy.”

In 2023, the film won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay and was nominated for best picture.

Polley continues to support causes that are meaningful to her. She has used her platform to speak up about income inequality and sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, and to argue for filmmaking that is informed by feminist principles. In her Oscar acceptance speech, she alluded to the need for change in the male-dominated film world: “I just want to thank the Academy for not being mortally offended by the words ‘women’ and ‘talking’ put so close together like that.”

“Run towards the danger”

At today’s convocation for the Faculty of Music and Innis College, Polley told graduates about her experience recovering from a severe concussion and shared the life-changing advice she had received from a doctor to “run towards the danger.”

She encouraged graduates to face their fears as a way to move past them. “Have a beautiful life and don’t always avoid the edges,” she said. “Ask for help. Admit your terrors to someone you can trust. Don’t assume you aren’t equal to what you want. It’s okay to be scared, and to feel like a fraud – most of us do. Go try to do it all anyway. And if your anxiety tells you that you can’t? Thank it for trying to protect you, and tell it that it’s allowed to come along for the thrilling ride – it’s just not allowed to block the driveway.”

Over her nearly four-decade career in entertainment, Polley has received numerous high-profile honours for acting, writing and directing. She is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the National Arts Centre Award. 

Originally published by U of T News

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