2012 Hero: Sarah Polley
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2012 Hero: Sarah Polley

Nominated for: staying true to an uncompromising path.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. From December 10 to 19, we’ll unveil the nominees, grouped by category. Vote for your favourites from each batch, every single day! On December 19 and 20 the winners from each category go head-to-head in the final round of voting, and on December 21, we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

It’s a little hard to believe Sarah Polley is still only 33 years old. Throughout a career that began in front of the camera around the time she was still learning to speak, Polley has developed a reputation for establishing herself in one facet of the medium before reinventing herself entirely in another. This year, that trend continued with her first foray into documentary filmmaking, with Stories We Tell. It’s a brave, unflinching examination of her own past—it’s a making-of doc, with the twist being that it’s about how she herself came into existence.

Of course, Polley has never been one to play by the rules. Following praise for her performance in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, she had several opportunities to become a household name south of the border—including passing on the Penny Lane role in Almost Famous that would catapult Kate Hudson to stardom—opting instead to choose interesting roles in smaller films (and the lead in Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, for good measure). When she decided to make her feature directorial debut by adapting the emotionally heavy Alice Munro short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, there must have been some that thought she was out of her element. Seven Genie awards and an Academy Award nomination later, no one doubted her talents anymore.

When Polley discovered around this time that the man she believed to be her father—British-born actor and insurance agent Michael Polley—may not be entirely who she thought he was, she set out looking for answers. She learned that her mother, who passed away when Polley was eleven, had an affair years ago with Quebec film producer Harry Gulkin while working on a play in Montreal. Sarah was born from their extra-marital relationship. It would have been perfectly understandable if she had wanted to keep all of this private, as one would expect in matters this extraordinarily personal. Polley responded by abandoning any pretense of secrecy in Stories We Tell, a film that grasps for an answer to the question of who Polley’s biological father was and finds hard truths about the murky delineations between blood ties and family. It has been regarded by a few critics as self-indulgent or narcissistic, but its detractors miss its inherent fearlessness. Once again, Polley’s sharp left turn reveals new layers in a Toronto artist who is fast becoming one of our country’s most important filmmakers.

See the other nominees in the Culture and Sports category:

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

A rare home for first-run documentaries.
  Academy of the Impossible

Making education accessible, and breaking down barriers.
  Alex Anthopoulos

Building the Jays into a team to be reckoned with.

G 98.7

Making commercial radio worth listening to again.
  The Beguiling

Supporting independent graphic arts for 25 years.

Cast Your Ballot