Women Talking directed by Oscar nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley, is based on true events that occurred in a Mennonite community. Polley adapted the film set in 2010 from the best selling novel Women Talking by Miriam Toews. The actual event involved over 100 women and girls in the community. They were being drugged and sexually assaulted in the night by the male members of their colony from 2005 to 2009. The women were gaslit and told by the men that their injuries were due to “ghosts” and “demons”. The violence is not shown on screen. But the emotional score by Oscar winning Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir sheds light on the traumatic aftermath of each attack.
One day Salome Friessen catches one of the men and injures him with a weapon. The man confesses to his crimes while naming other accomplices who have engaged in similar offenses. The police are involved for the first time in the history of the town. The men are led away, but this leaves the women with only 48 hours to determine their future. Their path is explained via a voice over. “We were given two days to forgive the attackers before they returned. We hardly knew how to read or to write. But that day we learned how to vote.” A group of women retreat to a hayloft to have a debate and vote for the first time in their lives. Polley has assembled a stellar cast which includes Rooney Mara (Ona Friessen), Jessie Buckley (Mariche Loewen), Frances McDormand (Scarface Janz), Judith Ivey (Agata), Sheila McCarthy (Greta) and Ben Whishaw (August).
The women in the community are illiterate. That is why they are joined by school teacher August who takes notes for their historic meeting. August represents the potential goodness of the Mennonite men and he aids them because he is in love with Ona. The women determine that they have only three choices. They can do nothing, stay and fight or they can leave. Salome can not hold back her anger and frustration during their discussion. “We know that we have not imagined these attacks!” She yells. “We know that we are bruised and terrified, infected and pregnant and some of us are dead! We know that we must protect our children. I will become a murderer if I stay.” The women have been raised as pacifists and are guided by their religion so forgiveness is part of their path to justice.
“It is a part of our faith to forgive. We have always forgiven those who have wronged us. Why not now? We will be excommunicated. Forced to leave the colony in disgrace if we do not forgive these men. And if we are excommunicated we forfeit our place in heaven. The only important thing to establish is if we forgive the men so that we will be allowed to enter the gates of heaven.” Scarface Janz interjects. Ona who is pregnant from a rape is the conscience of the group. She shares her philosophy that despite the fact that her attacker impregnated her she does not consider him to be a monster. She will love her unborn child and sees the humanity and innocence in the perpetrator as well as future generations. “Surely, there must be something worth living for in this life not only the next.” Ona ponders. “We cannot forgive because we are forced to. We are not all murderers. Why does love. The absence for love, the need for love result in so much violence? ” Ona does not see the males of their commune as criminals who deserve to be punished. This community does not have a criminal justice system. She feels that if the male population are raised to be kind then they can change. “Hope for the unknown is good. It is better than hatred of the familiar. We cannot endure any more violence. How would you feel if in your entire life. It never mattered what you thought? We liberated ourselves. We will have to ask ourselves who we are.”
Ona’s position shows that despite her current situation being with child as the result of a sexual assault that all life is precious. She has a staunch pro life outlook with her only option based on her faith is to give birth and love the child of her abuser. As the discussion continues there is a point where the women try to figure out if there is any way to change the patriarchy and improve their future. “Men have taught the lesson of power to the boys. And they have been excellent students.” Agata states. “But they are children and they can be taught.” August reassures the women. The movie is shot in desaturated tones to show that although their present looks bleak for the women there is the potential for hope. The beliefs of these women does not reflect modern society, where a female Vice President can exist, but they do live in a microcosm without running water or electricity. The film unfolds like a play giving a masterclass on the Socratic method.
Women Talking gives a voice to the voiceless women of the religious sect, while addressing the serious subject matter of sexual assault, domestic violence and PTSD related trauma caused by abuse.
Grade : B
Women Talking is now playing in select theaters and everywhere in January.
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