Photo corsets wholesale Sarah Polley (right) making her documentary "Stories We Tell." Credit Ken Woroner/Roadside Attractions One day, when I was 19 years old, I was in the middle of a photo shoot for a Miramax film when I was suddenly told it was time to leave. I was wearing a little black dress, showing a lot of cleavage, lying seductively on my side and looking slyly at the camera. The part I had played in the movie, "Guinevere," could not have been more removed from this pose. My character was an awkward girl, bumbling, in fact, who wore sweatshirts and jeans, and had little sense of her sexual power. But this was how they were going to sell the movie, and at a certain point, I was tired of being a problem, which is how a female actor is invariably treated whenever she points out that she is being objectified or not respected.
I was pulled out long gown dress of the photo shoot abruptly. The publicist said that we needed to be in Harvey Weinstein's office in 20 minutes.
"Are we done here?" I asked. "No" was the answer. "But Harvey wants you there now."
In the sfdgfghgjng taxi, the publicist looked at me and said: "I'm going in with you. And I'm not leaving your side." I knew everything I needed to know in that moment, and I was grateful.
When I got there, Mr. Weinstein wasted no time. He told me, in front of the publicist and a co-worker beside him, that a famous star, a few years my senior, had once sat across from him in the chair I was in now. Because of his "very close relationship" with this actress, she had gone on to play leading roles and win awards. If he and I had that kind of "close relationship," I could have a similar career. "That's how it works," I remember him telling me. The implication wasn't subtle. I replied that I wasn't very ambitious or interested in acting, which was true. He then asked me about my political activism and went on to recast himself as a left-wing activist, which was among the funniest things I'd ever heard.
Continue reading the main storyI indicated that he was wasting his time. We probably wouldn't be friends or have a "close relationship." I just didn't care that much about an acting career. I loved acting, still do, but I knew, after 14 years of working professionally, that it wasn't worth it to me, and the reasons were not unconnected to the tone of that meeting almost 20 years ago.
Continue reading the main story On sets, I saw women constantly pressured to exploit their sexuality and then chastised as sluts for doing so. Women in technical jobs were almost nonexistent, and when they were there, they were constantly being tested to see if they really knew what they were doing. You felt alone, in a sea of men. I noticed my own tendency to want to be "one of the boys," to distance myself from the humiliation of being a woman on a film set, where there were so few of us. Then came the photo shoots in which you were treated like a model with no other function than to sell your sexuality, regardless of the nature of the film you were promoting.
I've often wondered how I would have behaved in the meeting with Harvey Weinstein had I been more ambitious as an actor. I was sitting in front of a man who wielded enormous power. If you were interested in being in movies directed by interesting filmmakers, he wasn't someone you wanted to alienate. How would one have left that meeting, or those hotel rooms, which have been described by others, with that relationship intact, when he displayed such entitlement and was famous for such anger? I was purely lucky that I didn't care.
Shortly afterward, I started writing and directing short films. I had no idea, until then, how little respect I had been shown as an actor. Now there were no assistant directors trying to cajole me into sitting on their laps, no groups of men standing around to assess how I looked in a particular piece of clothing. I could decide what I felt was important to say, how to film a woman, without her sexuality being a central focus without context. In my mid-20s, I made my first feature film, "Away From Her."
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But I had forgotten a key ingredient of the acting process. Most directors are insensitive men. And while I've met quite a few humane, kind, sensitive male directors and producers in my life, sadly they are the exception and not the rule. This industry doesn't tend to attract the most gentle and principled among us. I had two experiences in the same year in which I went into a film as an actor with an open heart and was humiliated, violated, dismissed and then, in one instance, called overly sensitive when I complained. One producer, when I mentioned I didn't feel a rape scene was being handled sensitively, barked that Dakota Fanning had done a rape scene when she was 12 — "And she's fine!" A debatable conjecture, surely.
I'm not naming names in all of these instances. And that invites criticism for some reason. Which is funny, because when women do name names, they are criticized for that, too. There's no one right way to do any of this. In your own time, on your own terms, is a notion I cling to, when it comes to talking about experiences of powerlessness.
I haven't acted for almost 10 years now. Lately I've thought of trying to rediscover what once made it seem worthwhile. It's a beautiful job, after all, built on empathy and human connection, and it seems strange to turn your back on something you did for so long. But for a long time, I felt that it wasn't worth it to me to open my heart and make myself so vulnerable in an industry that makes its disdain for women evident everywhere I turn.
Continue reading the main storySeveral years ago, I approached a couple of successful female actors in Hollywood about an idea I had for a comedy project: We would write, direct and star in a short film about the craziest, worst experience we'd ever had on a set. We told our stories to one another, thinking they would be hysterically funny. We were full of zeal for this project. But the stories, when we told them, left us in tears and bewildered at how casually we had taken these horror stories and tried to make them into comedy. They were stories of assault. When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way. This is how we'd normalized the trauma, tried to integrate it, by making comedy out of it. We abandoned the film, but not the project of unearthing the weight of these stories, which we'd previously hidden from ourselves.
Harvey Weinstein may be the central-casting version of a Hollywood predator, but he was just one festering pustule in a diseased industry. The only thing that shocked most people in the film industry about the Harvey Weinstein story was that suddenly, for some reason, people seemed to care. That knowledge alone allowed a lot of us to breathe for the first time in ages.
Here is an unsettling problem that I am left with now: Like so many, I knew about him. And not just from my comparatively tame meeting with him. For years, I heard the horrible stories that are now chilling so many people to their core. Like so many, I didn't know what to do with all of it. I've grown up in this industry, surrounded by predatory behavior, and the idea of making people care about it seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky.
I want to believe that the intense wave of disgust at this sort of behavior will lead to real change. I have to think that many people in high places will be a little more careful. But I hope that when this moment of noisy sisterhood dissipates, it doesn't end with a woman in a courtroom, being made to look crazy, as these stories so often do.
I hope that the ways in which women are degraded, both obvious and subtle, begin to seem like a thing of the past.
For that to happen, I think we need to look at what scares us the most. We need to look at ourselves. What have we been willing to accept, out of fear, helplessness, a sense that things can't be changed? What else are we turning a blind eye to, in all aspects of our lives? What else have we accepted that, somewhere within us, we know is deeply unacceptable? And what, now, will we do about it?
Sarah Polley is a writer, director and actor.
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