Warning: This article contains spoilers and discussions of sexual assault.
The first sign that Women Talking fully understands the weight and nuance of the subject matter it discusses is in its careful avoidance of any graphic depictions of sexual assault. The premise of the film is horrifying. The women of an isolated Mennonite colony discover that for years, they have been systematically drugged and raped in their sleep by the men. Some of the men have been arrested and imprisoned—the rest have left for the city to bail them out. With two days to decide how they will move forward, the women present one another with three choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
An adaptation of Miriam Toews’s novel of the same name—which, in turn, was inspired by true events that happened to the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia—the film does not shy away from the aftermath of the inciting incident, but also refrains from revelling in any violence. Majority of the film is spent with the women gathered in a hayloft doing exactly what its title says—talking—yet the simplicity of its concept gives way to endless depth.
Slowly, the painful implications of assault reveal themselves in different ways through the survivors. Ona (Rooney Mara) is pregnant, Mejal (Michelle McLeod) suffers from panic attacks and Salome (Claire Foy) walks for a day and a half to procure antibiotics for her four-year-old daughter who is now ill. And just as the physical consequences vary, so do their emotional reactions.
With astounding empathy, director Sarah Polley strikes a delicate balance between rage and tenderness, devastation and hope. As questions unravel one into another, the film patiently untangles the complexities that come with the subject of sexual assault.
Can forgiveness be forced? To what extent can the actions of men be attributed to the systems they are brought up in? And at what age do beloved sons and brothers become a threat? The women argue and disagree, but they’re never violent. And with an incredible cast delivering some of the most compelling performances on screen, it’s hard to look away.
Despite its sombre subject, woven between the grief, anger and uncertainty are moments of humour and gentleness. Teenage girls braid each other’s hair, and the children of the colony laugh freely as they run in the fields. Even in the film’s darkest moments, the women find joy—and in no way does it diminish the severity of their situation. In a media landscape where overly didactic feminist works can elicit fatigue and cynicism, it is also this that sets the film apart.
At its core, Women Talking is about hope—not just for the women involved, but also for the boys in the colony who will grow up to become men. “This story begins before you were born,” says the opening narration, placing the events of the film in the past and thus opening up endless possibilities for a better future. And as the women on screen find a way to heal in the face of trauma, the film wills us, too, to envision what a fairer and more promising tomorrow might look like.
Watch Woman Talking at The Projector now.