Before it has even reached a wider audience, writer/director Sarah Polley’s new film Women Talking has received nearly universal acclaim from critics. It’s pretty remarkable that a film based on such horrible abuse can have moments of joy and humor, but that was baked into the novel by Miriam Toews, on which the screenplay is based.
Toews’s book and subsequently Polley’s film are inspired by a real and harrowing story. It was discovered in 2009 that in a Mennonite colony in remote Bolivia, over 150 women and girls had been repeatedly raped. Nine men in the community had been drugging them with aerosol tranquilizers that rendered them unconscious. Female colonists would wake up bloodied and in pain, and some found themselves pregnant, even though, to their knowledge they had never had sex. One woman woke while being assaulted, catching two attackers, but members of the community initially blamed Satan or suggested they were hallucinations. Women in this community were not taught to read or write, and only spoke the Low German dialect, so they had little to no power. Toews’s experience being raised Mennonite in Manitoba, Canada, the origin of the Bolivian Mennonite colony, made her uniquely suited to write a novel based on these events. In it, women who had been assaulted gathered in a hayloft to determine if they’d stay in the colony and fight, leave the colony, or do nothing.
In advance of the film’s release, Toews, writer/director Sarah Polley, Frances McDormand (co-star of the movie and one of its producers), and Dede Gardner, president of Plan B, got together for a spirited discussion and virtual Q&A about Women Talking.
Those taking part were asked about the process of interpreting the true story and how it took shape.
From the first moments and first pages, the movie and novel are declared as “an act of female imagination”. Gardner had thoughts on what that meant. “Imagination is a superpower. It means anything is possible. What was most essential to us was to get these women in the hayloft to start to imagine what a different world would look like, and it felt radical and heartening. Sarah’s previous film Stories We Tell is a miraculous act of imagination. As women, it’s one of the great powers we have, and people are scared of it.” Connecting to that aspect of the story, she further explained, “felt like one of the marching orders.”
Toews related that when writing the novel, the characters she created were all based on family and friends from her own experience being raised in a Mennonite community. It was only after seeing a screening of Polley’s film that Toews understood why the whole book and movie didn’t take place in the loft. “Writing this book might just kill me”, she remembered thinking. Seeing the film, it became clear to her why cinematically and emotionally, breaks from the women’s discussion in the hayloft were essential.
McDormand shared how she got involved in the production. She had a friend at Faber and Faber, where the novel was being published, and got an advance copy in 2018, before the novel was released. She found it exceptional and important within the context of what was going on around her. “Our industry and our country were starting to have a conversation that became #MeToo, and I was fascinated by the conversation and very anxious about it. This was the kind of way I wanted to talk about what was happening.”
When she got her hands on the novel, Gardner knew it would make a great film. “I don’t think women talking is dull, so I was up for that. It was structurally cinematic. It had everything I hope for in addition to being about something I feel so much about. It posited a different way to talk about all the noise that was happening around us.”
Polley loved Toews’s novel. “I read the book when it first came out and found myself lost in it. I lived inside the questions asked in the novel. I saw Dede and Fran were working on it and so I reached out about it.” Interestingly enough, Polley reached out to Gardner and McDormand on exactly the same day they reached out to her.
Polley went on to talk about her concept of how Women Talking needed to be written as a screenplay and filmed as a feature. “One of the most effective aspects of the book is that it goes through you like a bullet. We knew early on the script couldn’t be over 100 pages. It had to be over before you could process everything coming at you.” As a result, Polley said, some scenes she loved landed on the cutting room floor. In fact, her favorite scene she had ever shot as a director didn’t make the final cut. Polley also shared why she shifted one major aspect from Toews’s book, though the change happened late in the production. In the novel, the story is narrated by August, the only man in the story. He is in the loft as someone who could read and write, in order to take the minutes of the meeting. Toews explained that she felt the novel needed an outsider to narrate. The film too was shot that way, with August as narrator, and, Polley said, Ben Whishaw “delivered a gorgeous narration.” In the end, she decided the voice they used needed to be someone who had gone through the attacks.
Someone attending the Q&A mentioned they found McDormand’s role, in which she had limited screen time, surprising. She responded, “It was really smart casting. It’s really interesting dramaturgically to cast someone like me in the role I played. It’s the kind of casting we should think about a lot more. It breaks the rules, and that’s something Sarah thought about a lot on this production.”
Much has been said by the cast and crew about the positive atmosphere onset. About that, Polley said, “It had a lot to do with who we invited into the loft with us.” Added McDormand, “This cast was like a theater company. These were all people who are not only brilliant with their craft and can expertly perform scenes over and over, but are also comfortable being off-camera for days. Sarah created a community that cared about the work.” Polley explained given the intensity of the subject matter, it was important to have moments of joy and laughter together as a cast and crew. She was also committed to having shorter workdays and a dedicated trauma therapist onset.
The discussion ended with a question about what each woman hoped audiences would be left with after watching the movie. Toews said she believes all of us, as members of the audience and as citizens of the world, are like August. “August has listened, learned, and now he is left behind. Like August, we should be asking what we can do to rid our communities of violence and reeducate boys and girls. The story doesn’t end with what the women do. We are left with a big task in their wake.” Gardner hopes Women Talking will expand the way we think and allow us to imagine more. “The aperture of the applicability of this discussion is so wide. It’s very hard to do nothing. It’s hard to stay. It’s hard to leave. if we create space for the conversation and move outside of the echo chamber of one idea, that’s the space where imagination is available to everyone.”
Polley had the last word. “The line that always sticks with me is ‘Perhaps it’s useful to consider not just what we want to destroy, but what we want to build.’”
https://awfj.org/blog/2022/12/17/movie-of-the-week-december-21-2022-women-talking/ is in limited release December 23rd, and plays in theaters nationwide wider January 6th.