Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from Women Talking and sexual assault references.Sarah PolleyThe latest feature film by Women who speak is one of the best films of 2022 and has been earmarked for awards season recognition since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September. As its trailer suggests, Women who speak it is a dark but hopeful story. While the Academy Awards haven’t done a great job of recognizing female directors, hopefully Polley will finally receive the Best Director nomination that has long eluded her. Polley’s films are stark mirrors of our reality; Away from her shows in detail the difficulty of Alzheimer’s disease, Take this waltz is a modernization of rom-com clichés, and Stories like us it was a personal story from his own life. Women who speak it has a timeless quality, but is loosely based on a horrific true story.
What is “Women Who Talk” about?
Women who speak follows a community of eight women living in an isolated Mennonite community who discover that they have all been sexually assaulted. Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Clare Foi), and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) lead a group discussion to determine what their next course of action will be. They consider having to leave the colony entirely, as they cannot risk the safety of the younger girls. The sensitive boy’s school teacher, August Epp (Ben Vishaw), is called to record their meetings, but knows that the decision is not up to him.
Women who speak is loosely based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews. Despite the book, Women who speak, is inspired by the real drug and assault of women in an ultraconservative religious community between 2005 and 2009, Towes described as an “imaginary response” to the crimes. It was a very personal story for Towes; she left a town in the Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada when she turned 18. She felt it was important to tell the story of the survivors because she could easily have been among the victims.
The Horrible True Story Behind ‘Women Talking’
In 2011, seven Mennonite men in Bolivia were arrested for more than 130 reported rapes; police reports indicated that the number of fatalities is likely to be even higher. 150 women testified during the trial and many reported being threatened or harassed after giving their testimony. A sleeping anesthetic used on animals was revealed to be the source of the drug. Ultimately, the defendants were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The Mennonite community in which she is depicted Women who speak it is extremely secluded and strictly adheres to traditions. Modern technology is often eschewed in favor of traditional farming techniques, and many of the older residents speak Low German. In the novel, Towes describes the women as being forced into near-absolute silence. He deconstructs patriarchy and how these women have been subjected to harassment for generations. Initially, the community claimed that the reports these women made were either due to their imagination or a religious evil.
Why movies like “Women Talking” matter
However, the novel’s plot imagines a fictional Socratic seminar the women hold to determine their course of action. The remaining men of the community (outside of August) travel to the central city to pay bailout money for the men who have been charged. The women are faced with a choice in the two days that pass; can they stay in a community that refuses to punish abusers? As the title suggests, the story revolves around these discussions they have and the various perspectives that are presented.
While the conversations they have aren’t based on actual records, they do speak to the real systemic issues Towes considered during his time in the Mennonite community. Women consider the nature of forgiveness; how can they forgive abusers who are never held accountable? It is also ascertained that even the youngest children pose a danger to their collective safety, and that they cannot risk allowing them to join their journey. This means August is left behind to contemplate his own life, where he will attempt to teach his own students how to correct their behavior. The romantic connection between August and Ona is expanded upon in the film.
Explanation of the differences between “Women Who Talk” from the book and the film
Some elements of the novel’s story are excluded from the film adaptation. While Towes suggests that August be brought in to record the encounters because the women don’t speak or write English, the film doesn’t suggest that they lack a formal education. A storyline at the end of the novel where the women’s journey is discovered by teenage boys is also left out. The novel is told from August’s point of view and explores elements of his background; after becoming involved in a political cult, August was excommunicated from his community and traveled aimlessly before becoming a school teacher.
One of the interesting decisions Polley makes in his adaptation is to keep the timeline relatively unclear; while the film is set in 2010, there is no mention of recent events, modern technology, or geography. While this may be explained by the community’s strict adherence to traditionalism, it also shows the timeless nature of the story. A brief use of The monkeysThe classic song “Daydream Believer” is the only indication of a specific time or place. This is a problem that has existed throughout history. The film is also more metaphorical of the journey the women are on.
Sarah Polley’s take on ‘Women Talking’
Polley understood the importance of treating this material as delicately as possible; therapists were brought on set to treat the portrayal of aggression with respect and accuracy. While the women’s injuries are seen, there is no assault on screen. Polley said in an interview with Indiewire that her discussions with sexual assault trauma therapists and the film’s cast informed the direction the film was going to take. She also detailed her own experiences with abuse and sexism during her career in the industry.
Women who speak is both a response to the #MeToo movement and a timeless story of survival and healing. While the true story elements served as heartbreaking inspiration, the film addresses issues that are systemic to society. Women who speak it succeeds as a tribute to feminine courage and a personal expression on Polley’s part.
Find out everything you need to know about watching Women who speak here.