Editor’s Note: The following contains Women Talking spoilers and references to sexual assault.Sarah Polley’s latest feature film Women Talking is one of the best films of 2022, and has been earmarked for award season recognition since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September. As its trailer implies, Women Talking is a bleak but hopeful story. While the Academy Awards have not done a great job at recognizing female filmmakers, hopefully Polley will finally receive the Best Director nomination that has long eluded her. Polley’s films are stark mirrors to our reality; Away From Her shows the difficulty of Alzheimer’s disease in intimate detail, Take This Waltz is a modernization of romantic comedy cliches, and Stories Like Us was a personal story from her own life. Women Talking has a timeless quality to it, but it’s loosely inspired by a horrifying true story.
What Is ‘Women Talking’ About?
Women Talking follows a community of eight women that live in an isolated Mennonite community that discover that they have all been being sexually assaulted. Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) lead a group of discussions to determine what their next course of action is. They consider the possibility that they must leave the colony entirely, as they cannot risk the safety of the younger girls. The sensitive boy’s school teacher, August Epp (Ben Wishaw), is brought in to record the minutes of their meetings, but he knows that the decision is not his.
Women Talking is loosely based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews. Although the book, Women Talking, is inspired by the real drugging and assault of women in an ultraconservative religious community between 2005 and 2009, Towes has described it as an “imagined response” to the crimes. It was a very personal story for Towes; she left a Mennonite community town in Manitoba, Canada when she turned 18. She felt that it was important to tell the story of the survivors because she could have easily been among the victims.
The Horrifying True Story Behind ‘Women Talking’
In 2011, seven Mennonite men in Bolivia were arrested for over 130 reported rapes; police reports indicated that the number of victims is likely even greater. 150 women testified during the trial, and many reported that they had been either threatened or stalked after giving their testimony. It was revealed that a sleeping anesthetic used on animals was the source of the drugging. Ultimately, the defendants were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The Mennonite community that is depicted in Women Talking is extremely secluded, and adheres strictly to traditions. Modern technology is often shunned in favor of traditional farming techniques, and many of the older residents speak in the Low German language. In the novel, Towes describes the women as being forced into near silence. She deconstructs the patriarchy and how these women have been subjected to harassment for generations. Initially, the community claimed that the reports that these women made were either due to their imaginations or a religious evil.
Why Films Like ‘Women Talking’ Are Important
However, the plot of the novel imagines a fictitious Socratic seminar that the women hold in order to determine their course of action. The remaining men in the community (outside of August) travel to the central town to pay the bailout money for the men that have been accused. The women are faced with a choice in the two days that pass; can they remain in a community that refuses to punish abusers? As the title suggests, the story revolves around these discussions that they have, and the various perspectives that are presented.
While the conversations that they have are not based on actual records, they speak to the real systemic issues that Towes considered during her experience in the Mennonite community. The women consider the nature of forgiveness; how can they forgive abusers who are never held accountable? It’s also determined that even the younger boys present a danger to their collective safety, and that they cannot risk allowing them to join their journey. This means that August is left behind to contemplate his life, where he will attempt to teach his students how to correct their behavior. The romantic connection between August and Ona is expanded upon in the film.
Differences Between ‘Women Talking’ the Book & Film Explained
Some elements of the novel’s story are left out of the film adaptation. While Towes suggests that August is brought in to record the meetings because the women do not speak or write English, the film doesn’t suggest that they lack any formal education. A plotline in the end of the novel where the women’s journey is discovered by teenage boys is left out as well. The novel is told from August’s perspective, and explores elements of his background; after being involved in a political sect, August was excommunicated by his community and traveled aimlessly before becoming a school teacher.
One of the interesting decisions that Polley makes in her adaptation is keeping the timeline relatively unclear; while the film is set in 2010, there is no mention of recent events, modern technology, or geography. While this can be explained by the community’s strict adherence to traditionalism, it also shows the timeless nature of the story. A brief use of The Monkees’ classic song “Daydream Believer” is the only indication of a specific time or place. This is an issue that has existed throughout history. The film is also more metaphorical in the journey that the women are taking.
Sarah Polley’s Perspective on ‘Women Talking’
Polley understood the importance of treating this material as delicately as possible; therapists were brought to the set in order to treat the depiction of assault with respect and accuracy. While the women’s injuries are seen, there is no onscreen assault. Polley stated in an interview with Indiewire that her discussions with the therapists specializing in sexual assault trauma and the film’s cast informed the direction that the film headed. She has also detailed her own experiences with abuse and sexism during her career within the industry.
Women Talking is both a response to the #MeToo movement and a timeless story of survival and healing. While the elements of the real story served as a harrowing inspiration, the film addresses issues that are systemic to society. Women Talking succeeds as a tribute to female bravery, and a personal expression on Polley’s part.
Check out everything you need to know about how to watch Women Talking here.