Alzheimer's: Sarah Polley's Movie, Away From Her
Alzheimer's struggle brought to screen
Friday Sep 21 08:19 AEST
At just 28 years of age, Canadian director Sarah Polley has made a debut feature film that directors twice her age and experience would be proud of.
Also a talented actress, she is best known to Australian audiences for her acting roles as a supermarket checkout chick in the 1999 crime thriller Go and a schoolgirl in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter.
For her directorial debut, Away From Her, Polley chose to tell the story of a couple in their 60s who are dealing with Alzheimer's disease.
It is hardly a film you would expect a 20-something film-maker to produce.
The fact that she convinced Oscar winners Julie Christie and Olympia Dukakis to be part of the movie is even more impressive.
"During rehearsals, all of a sudden it dawned on me that I was directing people who were twice my age, and who had a good deal more experience than I did, and who were actors that I have grown up in awe of," Polley told AAP from her home in Toronto.
"I think when you're trying to make a film it's such a struggle to get everything together, and get the financing, that you don't really believe it's going to happen.
"So to all of a sudden get these people in a room was actually a little bit of a shock."
Not that it all came together easily.
From the start Polley pictured Christie, Dukakis, and Gordon Pinsent in the main roles, but getting them to play those parts took some convincing.
"In the case of Julie it was hard," Polley said.
"I wrote the part for her, and I was friends with her, but I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle to get her - she's just not somebody who rushes into acting jobs.
"It took about eight months of phone calls, emails and listening to her concerns, and in the end she did it, which was great because I really couldn't have imagined anyone else playing the part."
The film is based on a short story by Alice Munro called The Bear Came Over the Mountain, about a man coming to terms with the institutionalisation of his Alzheimer's-affected wife, and how he copes when she transfers her affections to another man.
Polley fell in love with the story and wrote the screenplay herself.
"I think what really drew me to the short story was that it was incredibly romantic, but not at all in an idealistic way," she says.
"It was completely grounded in reality and all its complications and nightmares, but there's some kind of intangible thread that remains between these two people, despite how many times they may have betrayed each other, or felt abandoned by each other.
"That to me rang true, and it spoke to a kind of marriage that I think doesn't get that much air time."
Polley spent months researching Alzheimer's disease, talking to doctors and families who had dealt with it in order to present an accurate depiction of the condition.
"The thing is every Alzheimer's case is totally different," she says.
"So there are some people who feel like this is a moment by moment description of what they went through with their mother or their wife, but there are other people it feels completely wrong to because that wasn't their experience."
The film was selected for the Toronto and Sundance film festivals and has sparked rumours of an Oscar nomination for Christie.
The sensitive treatment of the subject, the subtlety of the script and the assuredness of the direction have not been missed by critics who have heaped praise on Polley, and named her a director to watch.
"I'm very flattered by it," says Polley, clearly uncomfortable with the hype.
"But in a way I felt like it wasn't a great mystery how to tell this story.
"So I'm happy people feel that way, but I sort of feel it's the film anybody would have made if they'd made a film of the story."
Toronto-based Polley says she has no intention to move to the US to further her career, and is happy living and working in Canada.
With its snow-covered scenery set to a Neil Young soundtrack, Away From Her is a noticeably Canadian film. But Polley says that wasn't a deliberate move.
"I didn't place a great emphasis on making sure that it felt Canadian, but I did put a big emphasis on making sure I wasn't avoiding it seeming Canadian," she said.
"I think there has been a really big push to make our films seem less and less Canadian for the last few years."
She says the Australian and Canadian film industries are struggling with the same issues in that respect.
"Australia and Canada have an enormous amount in common from what I can tell," Polley says.
"(Both) have very distinct cultural identity and yet feeling somewhat colonised - obviously historically by the English, and then culturally by the Americans.
"At first I think both Canada and Australia were famous for making more sort of artistic films, and then we both went through this phase of commercialisation where all our movies were for export, and then there was this real push to try to make our movies more American.
"It seems to me that we're both slowly edging our way back to what we're really good at."
Away From Her opens on October 4.
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