By Marc S. Sanders
In the year 2010, a sect of women must hold congress in the upper level of a barn to debate whether to leave their colony or stand and fight against the oppressive men who rape, beat, and brainwash them into believing they will be denied entry into the kingdom of heaven should they never offer forgiveness and tolerance for the abuse they suffer. That is the story of Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley, from the novel by Miriam Towes.
From IMDB, Towes based her novel on a true story of vicious serial rapes in an insular, ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia. From 2005 to 2009, nine men in the Manitoba Colony, using livestock tranquilizers, drugged female victims ranging in age from three to sixty and violently raped them at night. When the girls and women awoke bruised and covered in blood, the men of the colony dismissed their reports as “wild female imagination”–even when they became pregnant from the assaults–or punishments from God or by demons for their supposed sins.
Sarah Polley’s film works like a stage play. She shoots with deliberately dim cinematography as if to have you feel the cold, helpless isolation the women of this fictional community endure. These women are smart but uneducated in reading or writing. When they vote for what do, pictures are drawn to display their options. Two figures with dueling swords are drawn for stay and fight. A horse is sketched for the choice to leave. The women cast their ballots by drawing an X under the picture they opt to follow.
To know that this piece of fiction is inspired by true events is very chilling, and when the film finishes there’s much to ponder and talk about. It stays with you. A young educated man named August (Ben Whishaw, in a beautifully reserved performance) from a university is recruited to keep the minutes of the meetings. Topics of debate include if they should leave with a mass exodus of all the women, do they also take the young boys; most of them products of the numerous rapes they suffered through. At what age are these boys incapable of trusting they will not be as monstrous as their bastard and abusive fathers? What about August? He is harmless and sympathetic to the ladies’ victimizations. Shouldn’t he be allowed to go too, or because he is a man, is he excluded? Frances McDormand’s character, whose appearance lives up to the name Scarface Janz, insists upon doing nothing. She’s convinced they will be denied entrance into heaven by their almighty God. To not forgive their attackers is a sin. Is doing nothing an option? If they stay and fight, how exactly will that be done? Violence is an unforgivable sin, as described in doctrine. How else do you fight against the constant attacks of violence, though?
Women Talking deserves an audience. It’s a very good film because it draws attention to a modern day hardship. When there are communities like this in the world that most of us are unaware of, how are the members accounted for? Are they being nourished and educated and living comfortably? Is everyone safe and protected? If they are not, then how are they getting the justice they are entitled to, and do they have a chance of survival? I appreciate when movies can open my eyes to a reality for which I have yet to carry any regard or awareness. I feel taught having watched a movie like Women Talking.
When the movie began, before knowing anything of what the story was about, my first presumption was that maybe this is an Amish or Quaker community based on the farm country setting and the simple wardrobes of the characters. The time frame was uncertain to me as well. Horse and buggies are shown, but no automobiles. So, is this the early twentieth century, perhaps? Only after the first ten minutes of exposition, did I realize this was something else taking place within a more recent time period. It is astounding how far we’ve come globally with the rights of women, minorities and the overall oppressed. Yet, there are those who regrettably remain overlooked.
Polley’s script is rhythmic with strong dialogue, and the cast of actresses (Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley) are quick with their retorts when one makes one statement after the other. There are lots of fascinating arguments at play here, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Again, this is gripping material ready for live stage work.
I did have a problem with the picture, however. The trajectory of the film works on its dialogue of debates. The actors deliver lines from Polley’s script perfectly. This is a smart collection of actors. Still, it is challenging to keep track of what platform each woman stands upon. When one gets swayed from one argument over to other side, it is also a little tricky to realize when that has occurred. Who is staunch in their beliefs is also difficult to keep track of. The dark photography that Polley layers the film with is meant to be morose. It works. It places you in the helpless mood of these afflicted women. When you consider the practicality of the piece though, it makes it hard to identify who is who and what perspective they have. Often, the characters don’t stand apart from one another. It might sound trivial. I may risk putting a stain on the filmmaker’s art. Nonetheless, but it got in the way of the movie I was watching.
It is a blessing that Women Talking has received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and for Sarah Polley’s screenplay. Had it not, the film would likely go unnoticed, and it cannot afford to be. Sarah Polley’s film deserves attention. Any one of us may never come upon these very private, hidden, and isolated communities that function under an unfair governance. However, the film demonstrates the vicious dominance that one sex can have over another which still remains all to common. No matter how much wiser we have become as a people, there are some who still have never gotten the message.