Women Talking and Acting

Erica Burman and Ian Parker have been watching and listening to the film about abuse and decision-taking.


Women Talking, released late last year, and now on screens here in the UK, is directed by Sarah Polley who also wrote the screenplay, adapted from a 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews. This, in turn, was inspired by a real-life event in 2011, the mass-rape of women in an isolated rural Mennonite community in Bolivia, a colony established there back in 1874. The women had discovered that the men had been drugging them with cow anaesthetic in order to rape them, including even young girls. Up till then the men had persuaded the women that their experiences of sexual violence were down to visitations by ghosts, hysterical hallucinatory fakes.

Group therapy

In the film the action is most of the time stripped down to an intense group discussion among some of the women delegated, we don’t know how, to decide on three options; whether to forgive the men (who are away at the town, either under arrest or else securing bail or release of the accused, in any case complicit in the crimes), or to fight back (which will entail physical self-defence and violence against the men), or to leave (to abandon the community, even, though they blench at the word, to “flee”).

The dialogue is painful – “an act of female imagination” says Toews in the book, and then Polley in the first frames of the film – and its outcome uncertain. This is a nightmare, both in the reliving of the violence and in the attempt to decide what should be done about it. This is powerful self-reflective deliberation, and there is a degree of complicity in the crimes among those women who suspected what was happening, either about these horrific activities or about other instances of domestic violence in the families that comprise the “colony”. It twists and turns around the responsibility of men and how the women themselves must imagine other forms of accountability.

Poster from the movie Women Talking.
Movie Poster

At times the film veers into Loach-style speech-making as the characters make their pitch, but here with an emotional depth as the women, in different ways, torment themselves and the others, and change their minds, turning from their own individual standpoints to the collective response they have been charged to develop. It neatly disrupts, subverts and outflanks the Bechdel test in film, the rule that for a film to break from the hetero-patriarchal mainstream it should have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than men. This, of course, is all about men, and what the women will do to live or refuse to live with them.

Time and place

The historical time of the film is marked by the intrusion of other men and music from loudspeakers on a truck that at one point comes close to the hayloft in the colony where the women are talking. One of the women has walked for a day and a half from the colony to obtain pharmaceuticals for her daughter from a “mobile clinic”. The women know there is a town, an outside world, but do not know what it is to live there. Some of the young women, those who talk to the truck driver, for instance, are evidently a little more worldly-wise, correcting a woman who screams at another in the debate “fuck it off”, pointing out that the correct phrase is simply “fuck off”.

There are moments of disruption – some funny but most tragic – and the question the film circles around is how these women will break from what they know, and come to know something different. Each act and possible act of the women is enmeshed in patriarchal structures of power and violence, and they must decide, for instance, what is to be done about the young and older boys who remain in the colony. There are also suggestive queer touches in the film, between some of the young women, and in the choice that some have made to refuse to be a woman.

The film operates within the limited frame of existing discourses, systems of meaning that mould what is said in line with existing systems of power, in this case, of course, most obviously that of religion; there are times when the women break from the dialogue or appeal to a form of solidarity and religious pacifism with their sisters through Biblical reference and through psalms and hymns. The haunting music for the film is by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who provided the music for Tár.

Faith and resistance

Miriam Toews, herself still a self-described “secular Mennonite”, weaves a religious sub-text into the film that Sarah Polley (herself once a comrade from the Trotskyist tradition that is now Socialist Alternative) carefully touches upon and, alludes to without turning the film into a theological treatise. The status of the “colony” as a place of refuge and as a colonial outpost is marked but not laboured.

One might say that the film both exemplifies and questions the dictum that the oppressed must find other ways of representing themselves outside existing systems of meaning, the dictum voiced by black lesbian feminist activist and writer Audre Lorde in her claim that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. The women explore how they would be necessarily propelled into violence, unable to adhere to their pacifist commitments if they stay.

One man in the film is taking minutes of the meeting; August, who can write. In the novel his role, his complicity and his attempt to make amends are more explicitly described. In some senses, there he is the saintly “Augustine” who proposed that there is all the difference in the world between the “city of men” that these women are confronting and rebelling against and the “city of god” that they would like to build, rebuild, to make anew. The women’s primary demands are for them and their children to be safe, to know about the world they are in, and, above all, to be able to think.

Men listening

Whether they will make it – whether they stay and expect their abusive men-folk to make amends or fight for their rights against the men, or take their leave and find another life, build another city of their own – is agonisingly projected, and each of the women speaks while the others listen. A theologically-attuned reading of the film in relation to the novel reminds us that the word for “list” – the list of good things that August is asked to make – is connected in Middle English with the word “liste” which also means “desire” and now gives us the word “listen”.

That, of course, is merely one reading of what is happening in the film, a majority-world reading that has been carried around the rest of the world through “colonies” of this and other types and colonialism in general. There would have been distinctive other resonances for the Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites in a local population for whom Spanish itself would also have been a colonial language. In the twenty-first century, talk of an English-speaking “colony” community both references but also paradoxically erases what we should know about the life of such a “colony” in settler-colonial context.

Nevertheless, what counts here in Polley’s film is that we listen to women speaking, and are drawn into their world that we might better appreciate the stakes of speaking out about abuse that is endemic in every “community”, religious or not.

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Erica Burman is a Group Analyst and feminist academic in Manchester.

Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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