Women Talking, Sarah Polley

Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: The Utopian Vision in ‘Women Talking’

In Women Talking, director Sarah Polley masterfully illustrates how new futures can be possible by reckoning and wrestling with the past and present.

Women Talking
Sarah Polley
Plan B Entertainment
20 January 2023
Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations With a Body of Memory
Sarah Polley
March 2022

“The past and present, I have come to realize, are in constant dialogue, acting upon one another in a kind of reciprocal pressure dance,” Sarah Polley observes in her new book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory. The opening of her award-winning documentary, Stories We Tell (2012), addresses the fallible workings of memory and desire as various family members and friends recount their relationship with Polley’s mother, Diane, who died of cancer when Polley was 11. Polley was the outcome of her mother’s extramarital affair.

Intercut with footage of Polley micing and positioning interviewees for Stories We Tell is black-and-white footage of her mother, an actress, prepping and readying herself before television cameras. The documentary signals how performance extends beyond the stage into our daily lives, whether pretending not to notice the indiscretions our loved ones commit, ignoring the routine violence perpetuated within our communities, or taking a leap of faith in fostering relationships and intimacy despite the treachery and trauma.

Yet the opening of Stories We Tell also reveals how the future weaves itself through the past and present. Over shaky Super 8 home footage of the Polley family, her father quotes from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), speaking about how only after the confusion, the blindness, then comes a dark roaring and the moment “become(s) anything like a story at all when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.” In 2017, Polley was set to direct Alias Grace as a limited mini-series on Netflix before she suffered a concussion that relegated her to producing and writing credit instead. Similar to Polley’s mother, Grace Marks, the heroine and murderer in Alias Grace, also is an enigma, skillfully deploying various roles before different audiences: ideal worker, seductress, murderer, and innocent.

It is in her most recent film, however, Women Talking, where Polley most masterfully illustrates how only by reckoning and wrestling with the past and present can new futures become possible. Women Talking represents a utopian work of filmmaking rarely observed in commercial cinema. Dutch author and director Marleen Gorris’ brilliant Antonia’s Line (1995) marks one instance of feminist imagination that envisions a matriarchal society for wide audiences. British filmmaker Ken Loach, also documents instances of consensus-based decision-making and utopian aspirations in films such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) and Land and Freedom (1995). But unlike Loach, who only spends a mere 15-or 20-minutes documenting such processes, Polley boldly dedicates her entire film to them and the transformations of the community and individuals that follow.

Women Talking takes place in what appears to be a sequestered Mennonite community. Its women and girls have been repeatedly drugged using animal tranquilizer and raped by various men in the community. During the opening sequence of the film, we see an overhead shot of Ona (Rooney Mara) in a white nightdress, her legs spread and blood on her thighs. She comes to consciousness before the sequence abruptly cuts to the barn where the community’s women have congregated to finally confront these atrocities and discuss three options: do nothing; stay and fight; or leave.

While documenting such traumas of sexual abuse and the subsequent gaslighting of the women as the village’s elders dismiss their rapes as that done by evil spirits or simply delusions of their overactive imaginations, Women Talking refuses to have the trauma dominate and define their lives. The shots of assault are brief, periodically and unpredictably erupting throughout the narrative, much in the way trauma operates in survivors’ lives. Sometimes the past flashes up as a result of the women working through past experiences or associations with them, like when Greta (Sheila McCarthy), an older woman, removes her false teeth, observing, “They’re too big for my mouth.” The film quickly cuts to a flashback of her being struck, her bloody hand extended with lost teeth cradled in her palm. The dentures serve as a constant reminder of the abuse that she suffered. At other times, the flashbacks of abuse occur unprovoked, a haphazard undertow into patriarchal abuse and its denial.

Identifying such trauma and abuse is important in understanding the women’s conditions and what leads them to meet in the barn. Women Talking repeatedly emphasizes how the women are attempting to work beyond their traumas. In an interview with Cineaste, Polley states she chose muted colors to define the visual range of the film to give it a sense “of a faded postcard, of a past that is over now. The world they’re in had already been relegated to the past, because the very act of this conversation they were moving forward.”

It is important that Women Talking is narrated by one of the girls observing the meeting, that a new generation has learned from the experience and is not shackled to the past as her parents once were. If we miss this utopian function of the film, it declares near its beginning: “What follows is an act of female imagination.”   

Women Talking brilliantly details consensus-based decision-making at work. After the women vote on how to proceed, they end up at a stalemate between deciding to stay and fight or leave. Only a minority of women suggest doing nothing. Scarface Jan (Frances McDormand) represents this disempowered position, worrying more about how challenging the elders would damn them from entering the kingdom of heaven than about justice and respect. She quickly removes herself from the barn and the film’s narrative, someone too intractably scarred by the past to move forward.

For the remainder of Women Talking, the women work through the two options and their ramifications. Language plays an important role throughout their discussions. The female narrator states at one moment that the women initially had no language for their experiences: “A gaping silence. In that silence, the real horror.” We witness them building up the language and ideas required to come to terms with their experiences.

For example, at one moment, Ona discusses the women leaving the men behind to start their own community. Mariche (Jesse Buckley) accuses her of wanting to “flee”. A discussion ensues between the difference in conceptualizing their potential actions as leaving or fleeing, revealing how word choice holds a distinct impact upon one’s actions. The choice of language is not some abstract, meaningless exercise. The precision of words defines one’s sense of self, community, and the types of actions that might or might not follow from them.

Discussion dominates Women Talking and reminds one of the famous saying of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members during the 1960s as they fought for racial justice: “freedom is an endless meeting.” The female teenagers express some of the boredom that potential audience members might feel at moments as they whine if the meeting will ever end. But for those viewers concerned with dealing with past trauma and the ways to work past it into uncharted futures, Women Talking serves as a model of the complex conversations and emotions that often define consensus-based discussions.

All the women are given equal respect as their various ideas are engaged, debated, and refined. Women who held one position at the beginning of the meeting, like Ona and Salome (Claire Foy), who initially wants to stay and fight, alter their positions as they work collectively through their thoughts. The discussion among the women is not about any one of them winning an argument. Like all good consensus-based decision-making, it is about coming to a collective understanding, which we watch unfold before us during the film’s one hour and 45 minutes screening time.

The main male character, August (Ben Whishaw), is mostly relegated to taking notes of the meeting since the women have been denied the ability to read and write by their community. It is a rare instance of commercial filmmaking where women’s voices dominate, and the main male lead character’s most notable aspect is being a dutiful listener. Near the end of Women Talking, he raises his hand to speak. Yet on second thought, he dismisses it, saying, “Never mind. It wasn’t important,” revealing a deliberation and reflection that all men should attempt to embody.

August’s position is not to suggest that Women Talking simply pits women against men, as I am sure some more reactionary and thoughtless critics will see it. This is a film attempting to understand systems of oppression that don’t simply reside in the individual or that cannot always easily demarcate between perpetrators and victims. When reflecting on the rapists recently caught perpetuating the crime, Ona extends her analysis, saying that their rape was “made possible by the conditions created by the men.”

In a sense, allowing such crimes to occur undeterred places them all, including the women, in compromised positions, unwilling abettors in their exploitation and violence, which does not mean that they hold the same guilt and accountability as those directly engaged in the rape. It also doesn’t leave their relation to the violence unscathed. Mariache, the last holdout who wants to stay and fight, lashes out against the other women who accuse her of accepting the violence and the men’s domination. Quickly, however, the other women realize that they are being unjust. None of them challenged the system that allowed her to be beaten by her husband and allowed her child to be raped. They continued with their lives as if nothing happened. They apologize for this. Greta speaks for all in noting that it was “not only the men and boys who have been excellent students” in normalizing the violence and oppression.

The narrator notes: “When we looked back, we could see the violence was happening everywhere.” This is true not only of the community within the film but the world at large. Polley has suggested that Women Talking is allegorical in nature. It never mentions a specific location. Furthermore, during a Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival, she stressed that Women Talking never uses the word Mennonite within it. Although some remote religious community can be assumed by the dress and setting of the film, she felt using the specific word Mennonite would allow viewers to confine and dismiss the problem to this specific community, to their “backward” way of thinking. Yet one can’t help but feel Women Talking resonating with the #MeToo movement and the sexual violence that has defined Hollywood since its origins, from jokes about women having to sleep their way to the top on the “casting couch” to the well-known actions of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse and that of others perpetuated against multiple women.

Polley documents her struggles with such abuse within the entrainment industry within her book, Run Towards the Danger. She recounts her sexual assault by Jian Ghomeshi, a famous Canadian radio host. While debating whether to testify against him as other women did, she listens to older interviews she had with him after the assault. She reacts after listening to herself, “I am taken aback by my demeanor. I am bubbly and giggly. I try to make things feel normal even as he consistently tries to throw me off.” It dawns on her that this will be used as evidence to discredit her account, to suggest that the sexual assault wasn’t anything at all since she continued interacting with him, denying the reality of the situation. She reflects on the interview: “It’s not just self-deception. It’s self-flagellation”, a description that could easily define the women’s relation to themselves throughout Women Talking before they finally have their collective moment in the barn.

She also recounts in Run Towards the Danger Terry Gilliam’s blatant disregard for her safety as a child when she starred in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) as he detonates an explosion dangerously close to her despite the prop man trying to stop him. She doesn’t isolate the problem to Gilliam’s behavior alone but instead hones in on the “great artist myth” that dominates Hollywood and other arts that enables such behavior. She writes, “It’s so pervasive, this idea that genius can’t come without trouble, that it has paved the way for countless abuses”.

Yet, like Women Talking, Run Towards the Danger doesn’t pit men versus women as if the ledger books can dismiss all men as perpetrators and all women as survivors. Years later, the special effects man who worked on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen arranges to meet with Polley. Despite her nagging self-doubts that perhaps the set wasn’t that dangerous, as Gilliam insists, he sets the record straight:

Everyone in my job carries around an image that haunts them of something that went wrong at work. For me, it’s the look on your face as you were carried out of the water tank and into the ambulance after the explosive surfaced so close to you. You were crying. No—you weren’t crying. You were screaming, actually. You were hysterical. Screaming in terror.

Run Towards the Danger

They then watch The Adventures of Baron Munchausen together as a joint exorcism. Before the moment of terror in the film, he asks to hold her hand and then states, “I’m so sorry.”  She reflects, “I hugged him, so grateful for the apology, even though I didn’t think it was his to make.”

A similar moment of intimacy and apology occurs in Women Talking between August and Ona, who are hopelessly enamored with one another. They stand outside the barn together during a break from the meeting. It is dusk. They talk lovingly to one another as she caresses his hands and directs them to her abdomen to feel the growing baby she deeply loves despite its origins from rape. Their interactions, caresses, and dialogue show two people, equals, in love, with deep respect for one another.

Later, he attempts to teach her how to navigate using the stars. She humors him and listens until he belatedly realizes that she already knows how to do this. He apologizes. She accepts it, though she implies it is the elders and the men of the community who should be apologizing.

Utopian visions periodically spark through Women Talking‘s narrative. We see a flash of Mariche walking towards a setting sun with her son, reaching out her hand to touch fingers affectionately. The meeting occasionally stops for religious songs that the women sing to one another when the trauma resurfaces and threatens to suffocate one of its members under its weight. Their voices chime in, lacing themselves together, elevating them beyond the confines of the barn.

Outside footage follows: the setting sun casting its glow on wheat fields as children dash wildly throughout them, playing, unbounded by the past and what the future holds, living in the moment. The camera roves as wildly as the children, uncontained. It is a moment of promise and temporary transcendence when the women reclaim the songs of the community as their own and use them to conjure spaces of freedom. [Spoiler ahead.]

A particularly poignant moment occurs by the film’s end. August is charged with writing a list of items that the women will find helpful when leaving the community. August, by this point in Women Talking represents a man in profound harmony with the women, not someone separate but an intimate part of their community. As he writes the list, each item listed is accompanied by a different woman’s voice stating it: stars, sun, language, numbers, women. His writing and their voices seamlessly intertwine where gender and individuality disintegrate for broader visions of a future where equality, love, and respect define human relations.

Anyone concerned with the practices, interactions, and emotions needed for positive transformational change must see Women Talking. The film embeds viewers in these processes without preaching to them. It respects each woman’s thoughts, concerns, and emotions as they work through their trauma to start mapping uncharted futures, futures that scores of feminist and anarchist communities have striven towards and have achieved from time to time. 

Women Talking embodies a utopian vision in a time dominated by dystopian imaginaries as shows like The Handmaiden’s Tale and films like The Hunger Games (2012) and Divergent (2014) project. It is easier to imagine the world’s end than a better one. Yet Polley not only created a utopian film but also fostered conditions during its production that directly challenges the great artist model that people like Gilliam luxuriate within. Claire Foy, who plays Salome in Women Talking, marvels at how Polley created such an environment on the set. During a New York Times interview, Foy states that Polley illustrated “how to work collectively with people. How to make something an open environment where everyone’s invested, down to the crew.” 

Polley states elsewhere in a Cineaste interview: “I think it’s going to require a lot more work to come up with other models that are more collaborative, and to acknowledge that the filmmaking process is always an essentially collective and collaborative process.” Such thoughts and practices serve as potent reminders that even within the deeply sexist practices of the entertainment industry, women can carve out spaces that defy the norms and still produce films of incredible vision in the process.

RATING 10 / 10