Straight ‘Women Talking’

Sarah Polley’s beautiful film about the Bolivia Mennonite rape scandal pulls some of its punches

Director/screenwriter Sarah Polley has done it again: a Socratic turn upon the unspeakable in her Oscar-nominated film, “Women Talking.”

Polley casts her watchful gaze upon the consequences of a real-life crime story: the destiny of a group of contemporary Mennonite women and girls who barely survived years of nightly drugged assaults upon their bodies— committed by their fathers and brothers.

Women Talking calls to mind another film hell-bent on bracing the truth: 1957’s 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-nominated legend. In ‘Talking’, we have the incandescent Rooney Mara, in a role as luminous as Henry Fonda’s was in the former. The women are seeking justice. The cast is electric. The action proceeds in the manner of a play, set high in a hay loft, rather than a sweaty jury room.

Instead of a volatile jury on the ropes, we have a dozen outraged women and girls who are contemplating what justice means when their bodily integrity has been given less consideration than a goat’s. They’ve never had a moment to decide anything in their existence, let alone their community’s moral destiny. They are largely illiterate. Now they are the ones still standing.

Does the film succeed with a wind-up like this? It’s the aftermath of sustained trauma, an existential crisis as few of us have ever seen. Take heed: This is no “#me-too” screed about workplace sexual harassment. This is wholesale carnage; there is no he-said/she-said. We witness the slaves plot their uprising.

The scandal that destroyed a faith’s reputation

A little background: The headlines of the Bolivia Mennonite scandal hit the international press in 2011 like a threshing harrow. It destroyed the faith’s reputation of simplicity and pacifism overnight. And it quickly inspired one of Canada’s greatest authors, Miriam Toews, herself raised in the Ukrainian Mennonite community of the Manitoba province, to write a novel of how the survivors contemplated their next steps. Polley, no slouch in pursuit of Canadian literary legacy, got right on it.

In the film, we see “the morning after.“ The women and girls— from toddlers to teens to crones— wake up mornings as if stunned by a club. There are pools of blood, semen, dirt, and bits of their own flesh soaking their white bedsheets. It runs down their legs. Some of them draw near death from disease, untenable pregnancy, and infection. Their rapes were near-murders, and to survive them at all, a miracle.

Worse, the church elders instruct innocents, “It’s all in your head. Satan visited you in the night to punish you for your sins. Stop the hysterics.”

As one of the survivors remarks, the gaslighting is worse than the attack.

A single woman, the “final girl,” catches one of the rapists and nearly kills him. (The audience wishes she had). The brethren’s actions destroyed the mother and her daughters, including her toddler. The women discover the trick: the men poisoned them with knock-out spray—what they use on cattle before gelding them—so as to make them unconscious during the assaults. Four years this went on.

The captured rapist spills on his cohorts. They haul the implicated dozen to a local Bolivian magistrate—something this community would normally avoid. The rest of the men follow along in their horses and buggies to bail the perps out. The church leaders give the womenfolk a whole two days to clean up the mess and forgive them. That’s an order.

Will the women follow that edict? Forgive them, à la Pema Chödrön? Or, shall they stand and fight, light the men on fire and burn them alive? Tempting. . .

And the third option: Leave the village altogether. Pack and get out, even if they’ve never seen a map in their lives and don’t speak a word of Spanish. They could follow the Southern Cross in the sky, find the cost of freedom buried in the ground.

As you might guess, the victims don’t necessarily get along. They don’t agree about what to do. This is the movie’s meat. Some of the women are so traumatized they’re barely audible, while others can’t shut up. Each one has a decent case about why she’s been destroyed, worse than any other. And yet they still believe in God.

That was the first note of implausibility for me, but these things take time. The meek are determined to do right by their faith, yet experienced viewers know that will eventually break. The film does not go that far.

There’s an innocent man in the women’s midst, a timid schoolteacher named August played by Ben Whishaw. He has recently returned to the colony after the excommunication of his family. Now August’s mother is dead, and he returns to Cults-Ville, tail between his legs. The women sense no threat from him, and ask him to take notes of their debates, their court reporter.

The script starts to blister in the “good man’s” shoes. Something doesn’t feel right. This man is clearly damaged himself. He’s depressed. He has puppy dog eyes and the camera lingers on them. I spent 100+ minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop, that the elders and bullies had perhaps raped August himself. That moment never came.

Rape is more indiscriminate of gender than people think, as any forensicist knows. The strong attack the weak. This particular well of psychopathy is single-mindedly determined to dominate. Yes, men savage girls for specifically being female (thus less than human). But these men will “feminize” and assault anybody they find threatening. The aftermath of the real Manitoba Colony revealed all this to be true—the movie missed its chance.

The film has dull spots, while never completely losing its hold. After all, how could the circumstances be anything but riveting? Well, maybe Lumet could have added some oomph. In each dialog scene, the film is masterful. The movie loses its way in the silences, the watchful moments between the words. There are things that should’ve gotten complicated and they didn’t. The sins of the fathers aren’t going away, even as the women load up their burdens.

We know no matter what the refugees do, they are reeling, and it leaves a thirst for a reckoning in the audience’s expectations. There were several bells that needed to crack. The temple warrants a tear down. The movie shouldn’t leave us with little more than a bittersweet regret that the beautiful Oona and fretful August don’t get to have an elopement. This was not a romance and it shouldn’t have ended like one.

People will be talking about Women Talking, because Polley waded into intimacies that no one has ever given a good poke. I wanted her to poke harder on this one.

I came home from the theater screening to watch a chaser: 1978’s “I Spit On Your Grave,” the greatest medieval feminist revenge movie ever made. Every brutality that doesn’t kill the heroine (played by Camille Keaton) makes her stronger and crazier. When she finally takes her pound of flesh from each of her rapists, she has not one tinge of regret. It leaves the viewer utterly appalled and completely satisfied.

Yes, you can walk or crawl away from your oppressor, there’s an exit lane. But only after you have eviscerated the patriarch’s raison d’être, and stuck their metaphorical, if not literal head on a spike, do you have moral finale. Let’s face it, every close watcher, every woman who knows this story in her bones, needs to have bit of hope.



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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and critic known for her work at Audible Studios, The New York Times Book Review, Playboy, Jezebel, Salon, On Our Backs, Talking Points Memo, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Review of Books, Esquire, the Criterion Collection, as well as her contribution to The Celluloid Closet, Bound, The Virgin Machine, Transparent, and the Criterion reissue of Belle de Jour.

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