The True Story Behind Women Talking and Miriam Toews’ Novel
TWo girls join their braids, bonding with one another. It’s an image that the filmmaker Sarah Polley never comments on in her new film Conversations with WomenIt is a moving story that you will remember for a long time. The movie tells the tale of three women who, with different opinions, come together and make a life-saving decision.
This film presents a powerful interpretation of a true novel. It is loosely inspired by a disturbing story that saw women living in Mennonite colonies being raped repeatedly while sleeping. The colonists originally blamed Satan and 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.
Screenwriter Polley has been sparing in 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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This is the real story
It was the context of these attacks that inspired. Conversations with Women They are terrifying. The Manitoba Colony men used an anesthetic originally made for cattle to make girls unconscious, and then raped them. One woman was able to catch two attackers after she became conscious during an attack in 2009. Although the men in question were initially punished at their expense, they were later handed over by Bolivian police. The case was brought to trial two years later. Seven of eight accused were found guilty while the ninth was evaded.
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.
Novelist Miriam Toews possesses a unique insight into the survivors’ lives. Toews is a Mennonite who was raised in Manitoba, Canada. Conversations with WomenIn her seventh novel, ‘The Horrorous Rapes’, she uses these horrific rapes to explain how women communicate when their rights are denied. 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 acknowledges that he is an exception and does his best to avoid editorializing. But, because he has seen the world beyond the farms, a person like an intermediary can help the reader contextualize discussions. Although his arguments are lengthy and sometimes circular, women will be able to express their desires, as well as any injustices, through the writing process.
Continue reading: This is a horrifying true story about rape committed in a religious colony. It’s now thought-provoking fiction
Sarah Polley, Director of ‘Women Talking’
Michael Gibson— Orion Releasing
Polley, a director is well-suited to adapt this often complex and talky material. After beginning her career on Canadian TV as an actor for children and later in film, she switched to directing young adults with films that focused on feminine desires. She directed her final feature, the documentary “2012”. Stories we TellAn excavation of her history and her parentage. It explores her childhood, her parents, and how her mom had an affair with her. This she didn’t discover until much later in her adulthood. It is more than anything a portrait of her mother, who has long since passed away. Polley tries unravelling a person that lives only in the past.
Screen adaptation Conversations with Women While the story is very similar, Polley has made some important changes. Toews was less interested in her explaining details of Mennonites and she gets rid August from the role of narrator. Autje (first time actor Kate Hallett), who is one of the youngest members of the group, also has 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. Ben Whishaw plays August, and his view is limited. Polley yields the lens to the female perspective, and Autje’s words that echo over the footage have the poetry of foresight.
Polley uses a saturated palette of colors to show the aftermath of the rapes only in limited glimpses. It almost seems like Polley is capturing intrusive memories. She prefers to show children in fields, highlighting traumatized people’s collective responsibility. This gives space for the anger that is taking place in the barn. 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. Although the conversations are theological in nature, they also feel very relatable.
There has been some ribbing among critics of the film. Conversations with Women How its forgiveness questions will apply to the current debate involving abusers of women by men. 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. The film’s inability to avoid getting bogged down in this debate could also distract from the fact that, for all of the pain in the movie Conversations with Women, 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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