Sarah Polley, in constant dialogue with her past

The Oscar-winning filmmaker is also a great writer of non-fiction—as this collection of essays demonstrates
April 5, 2023
Run Towards the Danger
Sarah Polley
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If you have seen Sarah Polley’s latest film, Women Talking, for which she won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in March, or her masterly documentary Stories We Tell (2012), you will know already that she is one of the most accomplished directors of our times. In this collection of six essays, now in paperback, she launches herself as a front-rank author of nonfiction.

The book takes its title from the advice she received from a concussion specialist after a fire extinguisher fell on her head in 2015, leaving her intermittently confused, afflicted by migraines and barely able to work. Instead of avoiding the activities that triggered the symptoms, he told her, she should “run towards” them.

Which is precisely what she does as a writer in confronting the traumas of her past. In portraying these experiences—the lonely terrors of being a child actor, spine curvature caused by scoliosis, her assault by an older sexual predator—the 44-year-old Canadian makes little use of the paint-by-numbers palette of victimhood. Her style is admirably forensic, her interest in nuance relentless, her readiness to revise her opinions admirable.

Especially gripping is her account of filming The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988) and what she saw as the irresponsible directing style of Terry Gilliam. Though still impressed by his talent, she has grown angrier over the years with the perils to which she was subjected on set and the celebration of “the out-of-control mad white male genius”.

Polley’s disdain for glibness steers her away from pat solutions. But there is a kernel of optimism in her framing of the book as a “constant dialogue” with the past, in which the “meaning of long-ago experiences [is] transformed in the context of the ever-changing present”. In that endless dance, there are many moments of reprieve, slow healing and, flickering in the dark recesses of the psyche, hope itself.