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Sexual Harassment on Film Sets Is an ‘Everyday Occurrence,’ Sarah Polley Reveals

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

Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley at the National Board of Review Awards in 2014

Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

Sarah Polley is done skirting around the issues. “I’m done trying to make elegant films that subtly talk about something. This isn’t the time for that,” the actress turned director said of the pervasive sexual harassment and gender inequality in film and television. “There are things that would make your blood run cold. And women have just had to put up with it.”

Polley is in Toronto with “Alias Grace,” her new series based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. Helmed by “American Psycho” director Mary Harron, and adapted for the screen by Polley, the series boasts all female producers but one. It is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a housemaid and Irish immigrant who was imprisoned in 1843 for the murder of her employer. Polley had long harbored visions of adapting the true crime story, and after a string of critically successful feature films, she was finally able to get it made.

Now she is using her prominence to speak out about her chosen industry — one with sexism embedded into its very fabric. As Polley explained in an interview with Toronto Now:

“There is such fear about not being able to handle the environment of a film set… 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.”

Having begun her career as a well known child actress in her native Canada, she recounted one stomach-churning anecdote from when she was 9 years old. “You make me really hate men,” she told a camera operator after he had spouted a sexist comment. “You won’t be saying that when you’re 40 and you’ve got cobwebs in your box,” he retorted to the little girl. Later that day, she saw a female focus puller in tears. “If it’s okay, just don’t say things like that because then he takes it out on us all day long,” she told Polley.

Alias Grace

“Alias Grace.”

CBC/Netflix

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to Polley. “There are things that would make your blood run cold. And women have just had to put up with it.”

The director stepped into the creative side partly as a way to avoid the rampant sexism hurled at female talent, though she said the problem persists in every aspect of the industry. When she first made the transition, a male interviewer asked her during a panel: “Is this something you’re actually serious about or is this something you’re just trying on?”

With a wealth of initiatives supporting women filmmakers and other marginalized voices, Polley is optimistic. Still, people were talking about these things ten years ago when Polley made her first feature, “Away From Her,” and the numbers of female filmmakers have remained stagnant. But the louder the discussion, the more encouraged the next generation will feel.

“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.”

Read the entire interview here.

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