Sarah Polley’s Act of Imagination

Sarah Polley’s Act of Imagination

Women Talking is about the struggle to unearth a language capable of describing profound desires for freedom and safety.

Still from Women Talking (Universal Pictures)

In Sarah Polley’s new film Women Talking, which won Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards, a group of women ranging in age from their mid-teens to their seventies meet in a hayloft to discuss whether or not to leave their Mennonite colony. For years the girls and women have woken up bruised or bleeding, attacked in the night by what they could only understand to be ghosts or Satan. For years they have been led to believe that this was how God made them suffer for their sins. Or that they were lying, or imagining these attacks. Then they discover that several men in the colony have been drugging and raping them with the aid of cow tranquilizer. Now, they must decide if it is worth staying—or if, as mothers and wives and daughters, they will prioritize their safety by abandoning the men of the colony.

Though the women cannot read or write, one of them, Ona, asks the colony’s schoolteacher, August, to take notes to serve as an artifact for others to discover and learn what happened in the colony. The women’s conversation proceeds as though they are in a courtroom. They interrogate their options as August records the back-and-forth, establishing a system that puts the attackers—even if not present—on trial. Not content with their religious imperative to forgive their assailants and move on, the women form a democratic response to a long-hidden moral crisis. They do this knowing that to leave their colony could mean forfeiting their place in the kingdom of heaven.

Adapted from the novel of the same title by Miriam Toews, the plot of Women Talking is loosely based on the true story of the mass rape of girls and women in a Bolivian Mennonite community between 2005 and 2009. Toews wrote the book after reading about the case evoked her own Mennonite upbringing, which she escaped at the age of eighteen. “I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women,” Toews told the Guardian. “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.” Her book, published in 2018, envisioned a subversive response the women could have taken after learning the truth of these violations. Her characters, who previously lived their days as submissive servants, engaged in a secret dialogue on innocence, forgiveness, and desire. August’s notes make up the majority of the book’s text, as though readers hold in their hands the document left behind by the women. A title credit to the film draws upon Toews’s foreword to proclaim, “What follows is an act of female imagination.”

Women Talking is far from the only film to examine the cost of sticking out a fraught domestic life. In a classic of the genre, John Cassavetes’s 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands’s Mabel Longhetti is committed to a mental hospital by an abusive husband. Subjected to shock therapy over a six-month stay, she returns confused and terrified, her domestic strife with her husband unresolved; in the final shot, the two make their bed together. The characters in Women Talking, unlike Mabel, have each other to validate their suspicions. Still, the great uncertainty of leaving the protection of the colony leads some to fight for staying. At the beginning of their discussion, Scarface Janz tells the others that they cannot leave; they have everything they want in the colony. Salome, whose three-year-old daughter has an STI after being raped, scoffs. “Want less,” Scarface tells her. Mariche argues that to leave would be to abandon security, safety, home, and family; later, we learn that her husband was one of the men accused of raping the women in the colony. As his wife, she’s endured his abuse for years. It’s a risk for her, as it is for Mabel, to interrogate her marriage.

Much of the discussion explores the distinction between what the women want and to what they are entitled. Sitting on hay barrels and milk buckets, they sort through the harm that has been inflicted upon them, filing grievances they previously forgave for acts they vow not to let happen again. They come to recognize that they must leave to avoid a collision course with violence. When Mariche refuses to accept this choice, Ona asks her how she could stay behind if she doesn’t even have the strength to stand up to her husband. “Who are any of you to pretend I have had a choice?” Mariche asks. As Mariche’s long-held facade of anger falls, the women recognize that the fractured state of the colony is their fault, too; they had expected their friend to forgive her husband too many times when she should not have. This is what they decide to call a “misuse of forgiveness.”

The Mennonite women, if they left, would stay within the tradition of their community but leave behind their sons, brothers, and the only land they’ve ever known. They’ve never even seen maps, of the world or the surrounding area. The story of Women Talking, then, is one where women decide to turn their backs on a system that has betrayed them and fight to ensure their faith aligns more fully with their values. One of the eldest women, Greta, advocates for their leaving: “We have been preyed upon like animals. Maybe we should respond like animals.” Salome asks if this would not be teaching their daughters to flee from danger. “Leaving and fleeing are different words,” another woman says. Indeed, their meanings say two different things about the women: leaving gives the women the distance to forgive their assailants on their own terms. It allows them to escape the lonely and confused fate of Mabel, whose husband cannot give her the help she so desperately needs. It permits them the safety they and their children deserve. Yet the men of the colony could not have manipulated their position for so long if the women had been given language to talk about their bodies. They woke with bound hands, bruises, and blood stains. They didn’t register these signs as marks of rape. “Without language, there was a gaping silence,” the narrator says. “And in that gaping silence was the real horror.”

A new focus on breaking the silence around sexual assault in recent years has contributed to a reevaluation of a film canon long dominated by men. In Sight and Sound’s latest critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles took top billing. (Just a decade earlier, it tied for thirty-fifth place.) Akerman’s three-and-a-half-hour domestic epic, featuring little dialogue, depicts a widowed woman who alternates between cooking, cleaning, bathing, eating, and sex work until a small disruption that shifts her schedule by an hour pushes her to a violent breaking point. The ending should come as a shock, but the film’s careful editing and framing help viewers understand why she came undone, even as she lacks the language to describe her experience.

Akerman’s protagonist experiences a sudden rupture. Polley’s women, by contrast, spend hours unearthing the language to describe what freedom and safety would look like to them. Yet, just as with the unexpected but sympathetic conclusion to Jeanne Dielman, even when the Mennonite women make the decision to leave, it registers as the natural next step. They were only women talking, but their conversation nonetheless leads them to profound realizations about their desires, proving that their exchange of stories and ideas was no small thing. Viewers can imagine that leaving their colony allowed the women to live more fully in accordance with the values of love, compassion, and social justice that are central to the Mennonite faith; that by claiming their independence, they created a more vibrant and spiritually alive community in which all members contribute and participate. Jeanne Dielman, by contrast, after succumbing to her own dissatisfaction, sits in the dark at her dining room table. She is not freed from her domestic life.

In the Bolivian case from which Toews’s book takes its inspiration, the abusers were convicted in court and sent to prison. The colony stayed intact, but similar assaults continued to take place. Though the fictional Mennonite women choose to leave behind the men of their colony, in real life, the change for a better life is not so swift or simple. “Your story will be different from ours,” the narrator tells us after a long shot of the women leaving has cut to black. For many women who suffer abuse, very little changes with only a single action. They may get glimpses of freedom when they give into what drives them insane, as Mabel and Jeanne do when they respond to the banality of life with unbridled screams and brash acts. Liberation cannot always be achieved by simply walking away from communities that have caused harm; sometimes, there is no path out. Mabel and Jeanne are housewives with children. Where would they go, and who would they be sacrificing?

At the end of Women Talking, the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” plays as the credits roll, a celebration of the women’s departure—and too neat an ending for viewers who just witnessed their ongoing trauma. Wishing to leave with all her children, Salome, out of a misplaced sense of maternal care, tranquilizes her adolescent son when he resists coming with her. She then gathers weapons, knowing the women may need to defend themselves later. She runs into August, who offers her his gun and reveals that, rather than face the rest of the men, he had planned to kill himself. The women’s departure does not signal the end of violence or abuse. The credit’s upbeat song serves as a macabre reminder of this fact. But for a moment, we are offered the chance to believe the daydream that the Mennonite women have put an end to their colony’s violence. Wild female imagination, an accusation used at first to discredit the Mennonite women, is taken up and wielded to conjure a dramatic means of liberation.

Brianna Di Monda is the managing editor of the Cleveland Review of Books.