Socialist Alternative

Film Review: Women Talking

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Written & Directed by Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley’s movie is ultimately a parable on abuse and resistance. It is set in a Mennonite Colony in an unidentified country. The movie is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Canadian author Miriam Toews. The book is a fictionalized account based on a very real story.

The true story that the movie Women Talking parallels and draws from was the rape of over a hundred women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in the 2000s. Eight men were eventually found guilty. They had drugged the women with cattle anesthetic and assaulted them while they slept in their own beds. The women, aged 4 to 65, were initially told they were imagining the assaults. After the cases became so voluminous, they were told that they were being punished by God for their sins. 

If we were to closely examine the movie’s plot devices and its pathways, we could find many faults, but if we accept it as a parable – then that’s probably not the point. The plot acts as a mechanism, allowing us to hear women exploring the gravity and breadth of their lived oppression. 

Voting On Your Oppression

In the film, the men of the colony go into town to bail out the individuals who have been arrested for the rapes. The women are told by the leaders of the colony that they must decide either to forgive their rapists or not. In response, they independently and collectively devise three options to vote on: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Bound up with their decision is the looming threat that they will be shunned and prevented from a place in heaven if they do not forgive their rapists.

The women’s vote is tied between the latter two options. To break the impasse, three multi-generational families of women are elected to decide between all the women staying or all the women leaving the colony.

Most of the movie is that debate and discussion, in the barn loft with the women sitting on haystacks. Written like a play, the women begin an examination of their world and life experiences with a freedom they have never before had. For their entire lives in this fundamentalist religious community, they have been forbidden not only from learning to read, but even from talking back to men.  

At one point, one of two teen girls, sitting at the side of the barn, breaks a silence, blurting out “this is boring!” This might be the director’s recognition that the film’s premise is not for everyone. 

The acting and dialogue of Women Talking is hard to critique. The film is all about the talking. Even the beautiful cinematography seems to draw us back to the film’s essential content by deliberately dulling the colors of the bright yellow summer fields of wheat where the children play. 

The Seesaw Of Debate

We watch the young adult women dominate the debate and the grandmothers stand back, only selectively pitching in their life’s wisdom. Mariche, Salome, and Ona each bring in their own unique life experiences. One character will argue for drastic change and another will push back arguing it’s unrealistic. As the discussion unfolds we are shown the subtle reactions on the faces of the different characters. Out of this seesaw of debate, a deliberation will arrive.

Mariche and Salome’s anger explodes episodically. While sharing similar experiences, their conclusions abruptly clash. All the nuances of their oppression are poured into the circle and messily burst out in the middle. Should one keep forgiving a habitual abuser? Is a woman herself responsible for the abuse she receives? 

Sarah Polley’s inclusion of Ona, Melvin, and August each point toward the positive possibilities. Ona is a single woman impregnated by rape and unwilling to simply marry her way out of her situation. Another victim, the teen Melvin, cuts off their hair and rejects their born gender. August, the keeper of the minutes of the women’s meeting, is a man of principle who clumsily, but with conviction, attempts to listen and respect the women gathered. 

The way the parable addresses the question of fighting or leaving can be taken in many different ways. Should they stay and fight in a world whose fundamental framing leaves them and their children unprotected from abuse? Can a society based on inequality, legalized by its religion, be reformed? 

The women discuss whether leaving the colony is even possible. Should they take the younger children? Or the girls only? What will happen to the boys left behind? Can the younger men unlearn abuse? The day of deliberation is a day of concentrated empowerment, where for the first time the lid is lifted off their silence. There are moments when women laugh out loud at how radical the change would need to be for them to no longer fear abuse. 

The Right To Leave

Daily in the U.S., millions of women experiencing violence and abuse are having similar conversations in their heads. Whether to leave their husbands, their boyfriends, or their abusive fathers. In this process they usually suffer alone as abusers deliberately isolate women from their network of friends and family that could help them process their situation or escape.

A woman’s freedom to leave is extremely complicated on many levels, not least the fear of homelessness and poverty. Leaving can be terrifying. The film is not a liberal fantasy where all women have to do is stand up for themselves and everything is fine. The uncertainty and fear of what world they enter as they exit their abuse is a part of the women’s deliberations in Women Talking. But part of the movie also demands a certain suspension of disbelief, as it never asks the question those fleeing abuse most often have to consider: would their abusers not simply track them down and capture and kill them?

The liberal feminist view of the abuse in the Mennonite community would be that abuse is relative: some societies are worse than others. The socialist view is that both religious and non-religious societies based on economic exploitation and systemic inequality can never be fundamentally reformed. While the film doesn’t address this question, it points towards the conclusion that the men’s dictatorship cannot be reformed.

According to the CDC, half of the women in this country have experienced sexual violence, and half of those experienced it before age 18. This crisis of abuse is of pandemic proportions, but is never squarely addressed in this society. In the U.S. today, economic and personal exploitation is foundational in capitalist society and it too cannot be reformed away. 

Sarah Polley, who as a teenager was a member of Socialist Alternative (then known as Labour Militant) in Toronto, Canada, has brought us a film that opens a door to an often closed room. A room where women talk about their hardships and abuse and express their anger. The conversation is urgent because their decision will determine the shape of the lives of their daughters. The struggle to end abuse is intimately woven in with the struggle to end this economic system based on exploitation. 

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