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The Harrowing Story Behind Sarah Polley’s Buzzy Drama Women Talking

7 minute read

Two girls idly join their braids together, literally bonding themselves to one another. It’s an image that the filmmaker Sarah Polley never comments on in her new film Women Talking, but one that sticks with you as you watch the movie, a story of a group of women, all of differing opinions, eventually coming together to make a decision that will save their lives.

The film is a striking interpretation of a novel that is loosely based on a horrifying true story about women in a Mennonite colony who were raped persistently by the men in their community while they slept, attacks the colonists initially blamed on Satan or hallucination. Already being hailed as an Oscar contender after runs at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, Polley’s drama features an ensemble of actors that includes Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, and Judith Ivey as the women who come together in a barn, in secret, to figure out how to respond.

Polley, who also wrote the screenplay, is sparing with expository details. Nothing on-screen reminds the audience that this is based on an incident that really happened in Bolivia; you may not even realize that it is a fairly modern story until a truck driver arrives in the fields blaring The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and trying to count the residents for the 2010 census. It’s a departure from Miriam Toews’ 2018 book that both makes the movie more expressionistic and roots it in universality.

Here’s what to know about the true story behind the film—which hits theaters Dec. 2—the novel it’s based on, and how Polley’s movie both adheres to and puts a new spin on its inspiration.

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The real story

The circumstances of the attacks that inspired Women Talking are nightmarish. For years, men in the Manitoba Colony used an anesthetic initially made for cattle to render girls and women unconscious and rape them. In 2009, one woman caught two of the attackers when she woke up during an assault. Initially, the men accused were punished by their own people, but they were eventually handed over to Bolivian police. Two years later, the case went to trial, where seven of the eight defendants were found guilty, while a ninth evaded capture.

It would have been awful no matter where it occurred, but the fact that it happened in this place—where residents have cut themselves off from modern society all while ostensibly ascribing to pacifism, made the case even stranger. It was a distressing dispatch from an enclave beyond most outsiders’ understanding, where the language used is Low German, a vestige of the 16th Century.

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The novel

Novelist Miriam Toews possesses a unique insight into the survivors’ lives. Toews was raised Mennonite in Manitoba, Canada, and has written multiple books about her background. Women Talking, her 7th novel, uses the horrific rapes as the basis for an explanation of how women speak when they are living in a place that denies them that right. It’s an austere novel that lets its lyricism emerge in quiet ways.

Toews’ conceit is that her text is the minutes of the meeting in which the women of the fictionalized Molotschna Colony decide whether they are going to leave the only home they have ever known, stay and fight, or do nothing. Because none of the female members of this community speak English or have been taught to read or write, they enlist the help of one man, August, a schoolteacher whose family had been exiled for his own mother’s curiosity and desire for knowledge. He went to university, but returned following an incident which resulted in his arrest—abused in prison, he slunk back to the confines of the community where he was born.

August recognizes his place as an outlier, and tries to editorialize as little as possible, but as someone who has experienced what exists beyond the farmlands, he serves as something like an intermediary who can contextualize the discussions for the reader. The arguments he details are long and often circular, but in the process, the women can begin to articulate their own desires as well as the injustices they have suffered.

Read more: A Horrific True Story of Rape in a Religious Colony Becomes Thought-Provoking Fiction

The film adaptation

Director Sarah Polley on the set of 'Women Talking'Michael Gibson— Orion Releasing

Polley is a director who is uniquely situated to the challenge of adapting this talky and often dense material. Having begun her career as a child actor on Canadian television and, later, in films, she pivoted into directing as a young adult, with movies that explored feminine desire. Her last feature was the 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, an excavation of her past and parentage that explores how she was the result of an unspoken affair that her mother had, something that she did not discover until well into adulthood. More than anything it becomes a portrait of her mom, long dead, as Polley tries to untangle a person who only lives in memory.

The screen adaptation of Women Talking hews incredibly closely to the book, but Polley makes some key changes. She is even less interested than Toews in explaining the particularities of the Mennonites, and gets rid of August as a narrator, yielding the voiceover to Autje (first-time actor Kate Hallett), one of the younger members of those gathered, who has also been violated. Polley’s conceit is that Autje is telling the story of the meeting to the unborn child of Ona, played by Rooney Mara. August is still present, played by Ben Whishaw, but his perspective is more limited. Polley yields the lens to the female perspective, and Autje’s words that echo over the footage have the poetry of foresight.

Read more: I Covered the Story That Inspired ‘Women Talking.’ Here’s What I Wish More People Knew

Using an intensely saturated color palette, Polley only shows the aftermath of the rapes in brief glimpses, almost flashes of intrusive memories. She is more interested in showing children playing in the fields and highlighting the collective responsibility of so many who have been traumatized, giving space for the rage happening in the barn where the meeting is unfolding. As Ona, Mara is bright and inquisitive; Foy is vengeful as Salome, who fears her own murderous anger; Buckley is cynical as Mariche, who fears what might happen if they don’t forgive the men as they are told. The conversations are theological, but also intensely relatable.

There have already been titters of discussion among the critics who have seen Women Talking about how its questions of forgiveness will be applied to current discourse involving men who have abused women. If you want to make that connection, it’s pretty clear what side Polley comes down on, while also allowing room for all the moral complications that can arise from this line of questioning. Still, allowing the film to get mired in that debate can also detract from the fact that for all the sorrow in Women Talking, it’s ultimately a hopeful vision. Whereas Toews’ novel ends on a note of uncertainty, Polley’s work firmly advocates for a better future.

A card at the beginning of the film reads: “What follows is an act of female imagination.” The rapes were blamed on “wild female imagination,” but Polley spins that bit of gaslighting into a mantra. It’s a promise of a world where women’s voices are heard, free from the specter of patriarchy.

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