The new film WOMEN TALKING is based on the 2018 novel of the same name, and it’s earned two well-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The story itself is remarkable. While the dialogue is fiction, the events leading up to the “women talking” are based on a true story. A story that seems especially harrowing once you realize it took place as recently as 2010.
As the film opens, an unseen female narrator describes it as both a Doomsday tale and a call to prayer. “This story ends before you were born,” she says, and we don’t yet know to whom she is speaking. “What follows is an act of female imagination.”
A group of women have gathered in the hayloft of a neighbor’s barn to decide their future. They live in an isolated religious community, although they have no idea where it is. They’ve never been shown a map and have no formal education. What they have is each other, but their discussions are heated, angry, and full of questions..
The women have less than two days to reach a decision, before the return of the men. The men are in the city posting bail for their own brethren: eight accused of rape and sexual abuse. Meanwhile, the women sit on overturned milk pails, discussing their options:
- Stay and Do Nothing (except forgive)
- Stay and Fight
These sexual assaults had gone on for several years. The dozens of victims range in age from about five to sixty-five. Sprayed with a livestock sedative as they slept, they awakened to bruises and bloodied sheets. It could be God punishing them for their sins, explained Peters, the Elder; or the devil at work; or merely their wild female imaginations. In the end, Salome (Claire Foy), a victim and mother of a much younger victim, caught one of the men in the act and tried to kill him. He implicated the other men, and Peters called in the police.
Because the women can’t read or write, Ona (Rooney Mara), who is pregnant, has asked August (Ben Whishaw) to record the minutes of their meeting and their votes. August has recently returned to the community as a schoolteacher to the boys. Years before, he was forced to leave the community with his parents, who were ex-communicated. August, as we learn, has always loved Ona, and she, perhaps, him. He’s a sensitive soul (deemed too sensitive and possibly effeminate by the other men), while Ona is considered an odd duck, even though what we see is a woman both luminous and extraordinarily fair-minded. The Do Nothing option is quickly rejected by a majority of the woman, and a Do Nothing woman returns to her home. Eight women (three, still teenagers) remain. Two grandmothers, mothers, daughters. All victims.
The Real Life Story. In Bolivia, South America, between 2007-2009, more than 130 women and girls were raped in their ultraconservative Mennonite community. The elders became suspicious and followed one of the men at night, caught him in the act, and turned him into the Bolivian authorities. The victims caused a sensation when they testified at the men’s trial in 2010; ultimately eight men were convicted and given 25-year sentences.
Back in the hayloft, the women bicker and rage and sometimes laugh. We get a sense of the lives they’ve led—apart from the assaults. When one woman suggests they ask the men to leave, Agata (Judith Ivey), who is a grandmother, points out that they’ve never asked the men for a single thing. Not for the salt to be passed or a moment alone or to open a curtain or “to put your hand on the small of my back as I try again, for the 12th or 13th time, to push a baby out of my body.” The women break out laughing as she concludes, “Isn’t it interesting that the one and only request the women would make would be for them to leave?”
As gripping as the dialogue is, the film is not all “women talking”. There are glimpses of a beautiful landscape, children playing, the night sky. The women would rather not leave. It’s all they’ve ever known. Their faith is strong. Their discussions are spiritual as well as practical. If they leave, will they be denied entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven? If they stay, could they ever forgive their rapists? If they leave, can the boy children come with them? At what age is it too late for a boy to un-learn his conditioning? In the end, their faith guides them. They want to keep their faith, they want to be allowed to think, and they want to protect their children. Anything less would be putting themselves on a collision course with violence.
Miriam Toews, who wrote the novel, grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada and left when she was eighteen. She’d written a number of novels when she heard about the Bolivian women. “I needed to write about these women,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. “I could have been one of them.”
An American journalist living in Bolivia at the time reported on the trial in TIME magazine. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky said she was still haunted by the story several years later and wanted to write a follow-up piece. What she found, after moving in with a host family, was devastating. The women had been denied counseling, the rationale being that they were passed out during the attacks and wouldn’t remember them. The victims were also told to forgive their rapists or face eternal damnation. What’s more, incest was prevalent throughout the colony and the rapes had not stopped.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Toews in her novel and Sarah Polley in her adapted screenplay refer to the story of women talking to decide their own fate as “an act of female imagination.”