Sarah Polley reflects on the landslide of revelations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment business.
“We’ve all been complicit in this culture: we’ve all seen things, we’ve let them slide. We would have never gone to a producer to report it, because no one would have cared. Right? That was the culture — we were all used to it,” the Canadian actress and activist said last week at a Toronto panel discussing sexual harassment in the film industry.
But “that complicity is changing,” she says.
What’s galvanized Polley, industry leaders and activists in this climate — where sexual misconduct is being called out and dozens of power players are tumbling — is the opportunity for a significant cultural shift towards safer, gender-balanced and more diversified workplaces.
‘A very personal fight’
Today, actor Mia Kirshner, filmmaker Aisling Chin-Yee and actor-producer Freya Ravensbergen are kicking off a two-day symposium they’ve spearheaded. Entitled #AfterMeToo, it brings together members of the Canadian film and TV community, trauma experts, lawyers, activists and politicians in Toronto to discuss practical ways to combat sexual harassment, assault and abuse.
“It’s a very personal fight for me. As somebody who went through the system, as somebody who has been sexually assaulted, I spent a great deal of time thinking about this and studying it and trying to reconcile how I dealt with it post-assault and what I wished was in place,” Kirshner told CBC News.
The Toronto-based actor wrote a blistering opinion piece this fall in the Globe and Mail that blasted the industry for “turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and abuse carried out by those who wield power in the film industry,” including criticizing performers unions ACTRA and SAG.
“We created #AfterMeToo because we didn’t feel heard from within the system,” she said. The goal is to explore the issue from a survivor’s point of view and make recommendations for industrial policy, new legislation and changes to the justice system.
Topics Kirshner is eager to explore include review of sexual harassment and assault complaints by independent parties “not beholden to protecting the organization,” online reporting systems that can track whether accusers subsequently face reprisal or industry blacklisting, increasing mental health support for victims and greater accessibility to and advances in sexual assault kits.
“The whole purpose of #AfterMeToo is to work together, not to work separately. No one is pointing a finger at one place. It’s a systematic breakdown.”
‘There’s money at stake’
The entertainment industry is just one of the sectors rocked by allegations this fall of workplace sexual misconduct, harassment and assault committed by powerful, high-profile figures, an ever-growing wave initially sparked by New York Times and New Yorker exposés about disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein’s swift fall from grace has been followed by a string of others, from actor Kevin Spacey to comedian Louis C.K., producer Brett Ratner to filmmaker James Toback, Just for Laughs co-founder Gilbert Rozon to TV news stalwarts Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.
“We’re defined by our hopes. My hope is that this is a turning point in our culture,” said filmmaker Patricia Rozema.
“I’m very encouraged that the Weinsteins, the Roy Moores… the Kevin Spaceys are brought down. There really was a belief that they were too big to fail and it’s been proven they were not. There’s money at stake and when the money is actually following the morality, there’s hope.”
Stakeholders in the Canadian entertainment industry — including the unions representing performers, directors, producers and media workers — held a closed-door meeting in late November to discuss the issue. The result was an agreement to develop an industry-wide code of conduct.
Some of the same players gathered again last week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to discuss the issue at a small gathering open to the public, sharing examples of measures to come in the immediate future, including ACTRA’s vow to expedite processes such as conducting investigations of the most serious harassment claims within 48 hours.
Other initiatives that industry groups like the Canadian Media Producers Guild are pursuing include the development of tool kits and training sessions that will be made publicly available, outreach to schools feeding into the industry and exploring a better reporting mechanism for complaints.
The goal is to find one “that would have safe reporting and adjudication of claims done by a third-party body to eliminate any kind of conflict of interest, any kind of personal affiliation, because that’s going to give the fairness and transparency to the process that I think every party will appreciate,” said Marguerite Pigott, vice-president of outreach and strategic initiatives at the Canadian Media Producers Association.
Gender balance, increased diversity
The current atmosphere has inspired much conversation about reprehensible behaviour on entertainment industry sets, with many saying that observing basic tenets like treating people with respect and valuing everyone as equals would be two simple steps.
Though Kristin Kreuk said “nothing really terrible has ever occurred” to her as a performer, the star of the upcoming CBC-TV legal drama Burden of Truth said she’s felt uneasy on some sets “where it’s fine if someone comments on the way you look — calls you attractive or not. Calls you sweetie or honey or whatever it is.
“There’s just a general feeling that you must exist as kind and soft and gentle, and make sure everything’s OK … for everyone to feel — especially the males on set — to feel good,” the Canadian actress told CBC News.
Kreuk’s co-star, Peter Mooney said, “As a male and a white male, I’ve been on the most privileged side historically. And I think it’s really heartening to see that there’s some measure of levelling coming now, that the safety and security that I feel that I’m afforded on set is starting to be extended to everyone.”
Praising Burden of Truth‘s female-led team, with women prominent as writers and producers and in the cast, Kreuk said, “It’s important that we have women telling stories, because it changes the way those stories are told. It changes the way women are represented on-screen, which then shifts the way we perceive the male and female dynamic as a whole.”
Actor, director and host Nicole Stamp supports showcasing a more representative swath of humanity, “where women are writing female characters so the women you’re seeing on TV are not somebody’s idea of what women are like,” she said.
“And the same thing for marginalized people from other identities. I want to see transgender characters played by transgender actors … I don’t want to see an able-bodied person pretending to have a disability and imagining what that feels like.
“The more that we can bring true parity and true diversity into our storytelling, the richer our culture becomes. … It’s not just about what happens on our film sets. It’s about how the stories we put onscreen change our whole culture.”
There are many small and seemingly simple ways for everyone to effect change, added Stamp, whose Facebook missive to male friends about “how to help” amid the #metoo movement went viral in October.
“We don’t have to pull out a flaming sword to take down an industry monster” every time, she said.
“We can treat women and marginalized people in more respectful ways in our everyday life and just improve the five-metre radius around each of us. If you do that, you actually help shift the entire culture.”
Many in the entertainment world feel that achieving positive outcomes in their industry — which garners attention around the globe — can serve as the vanguard for other sectors. There is a sentiment being touted universally across the board: now is a decisive moment of change.
“We have this window where we’re being heard and we absolutely can’t miss this,” Kirshner said.
”I won’t accept not being heard. We won’t accept not being heard… These systems need to change. Laws need to change. … Sexual assault trials need to change, radically.”