Women Talking: An Act of Female Imagination
In 2005, women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia began to notice evidence that they had been drugged and raped in the night. They were waking up bruised, bloodied, and in pain, but with no memory of what had happened to them. The attacks were called the work of the devil, or dismissed as the results of “wild female imagination.” It wasn’t until 2009 that it would become clear what was really happening: men of the colony were breaking into homes, drugging entire families with cow tranquilizers, and assaulting the women and girls.
The recent film Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley, is a fictionalized response to these real events, and is based upon Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name. The film was screened at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on January 30, 2023 and was followed by a discussion between Women Talking producer and actor Frances McDormand, UC Berkeley Associate Professor of History Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, and Naima Karczmar, a PhD candidate in English and Critical Theory.
The panelists discussed the importance that the novel and the film were imagined responses to the real events in Bolivia, rather than documentary ones. They spoke about the fact that this way of telling the story universalized it, by making audiences think about the ways that the issues showing up in the film also appeared in their own world.
The film begins after the attacks have taken place. The perpetrators have been arrested, and the remaining men of the colony have gone to town to bail them out. The survivors are left behind to decide what course of action they will take: stay and fight, do nothing, or leave. When the vote is tied between “stay and fight” and “leave,” three families, encompassing three or four generations, are elected to make a decision for all the survivors. The film follows their conversation as they try to understand what has happened to them and grapple with their relationships to the “poisoned men they love.” The film does not shy away from their anger, but it also does not forget to foreground their faith, their community, and their humor.
Women Talking identifies itself, through bold titles at its opening, as an “act of female imagination.” It is, as McDormand emphasized during the panel discussion following the film, a reclamation of the term “wild female imagination,” which had been used to disparage the women’s experiences. Their ability to imagine the world they wanted for themselves in the future, their intellectualism, and their ability to listen to each other’s ideas gave them power and agency. In calling itself an act of imagination, the film emphasizes the way that both the women in the film and the filmmakers themselves create change in the world through their storytelling.
McDormand framed the making of the film as a process of “illuminating the matriarchy.” She told a story about the filming of one scene, in which a mother (Greta) and daughter (Mariche) talk about Mariche’s abusive husband. The scene culminates with Greta’s apology to Mariche for not doing a better job of protecting her from the abusive relationship. This apology was not originally in the script, but was added after a crew member found himself deeply affected by the content of the scene due to similar family history. He told director Sarah Polley that he felt it was necessary for the character to apologize, and she had the actors work this into their portrayal of the scene.
As this anecdote exemplifies, Women Talking does not do its healing work solely through its commentary on the events in the Bolivian Mennonite colony. In Polley’s model of movie making, healing is also necessarily present for those who participate in the process of crafting a film. This fact feels intimately connected to Polley’s own past experiences in the film industry, which she addresses in her recent collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger. In the book, Polley grapples with the figure of the “insane” white male artist or filmmaker, who harms others in pursuit of his art. During her time as a child actor, Polley had been exposed to and harmed by such men; Women Talking feels like a response to this and a demonstration that this does not need to be the norm.
The film has a fable-like quality, using a dusty palette and imagery as well as a voice-over narration by Autje, one of the teenage members of the colony. The colony members’ plain clothing as well as the lack of technology in their environment make the story feel like something out of the past, but there are reminders that the story is taking place very near to the present. Most glaringly, the survivors’ conversation is interrupted by a car driving through the colony, calling out over a loudspeaker for its residents to come and be counted for the 2010 census. This dissonance feels especially important given the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. It is a reminder that we must not become complacent and that threats to feminist progress around bodily autonomy are closer than we might like to think.
The film avoids showing any of the actual acts of violence, limiting flashback scenes to the moments afterward, accompanied by the sound of a clanging bell. Polley refuses to repeat the trauma of the attacks by representing them. Instead, she foregrounds the imagination and intellect of her characters, and in doing so, lends them agency. Instead of making them objects of knowledge or things for the audience to learn about, Women Talking gives its characters space to generate their own stories and wisdom.
Women Talking forces its audience to witness the act of women taking up space with their opinions. They care for each other through listening, and through their attempts to figure out how to heal themselves and the “poisoned men they love.” In the words of Autje, “it’s doomsday, and it’s a call to prayer.” It is also a call to action.