Women Talking Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley goes deep on her new film Women Talking, an action movie in words

“The conversation that happened because of the MeToo movement created the conditions for a movie like this to be financed. But I never connected to the idea of it being a MeToo movie. Ultimately, it’s about now that we know what these harms are, how do we move forward and heal in ways that are productive and full of hope and recovery?”

Women Talking is an action movie in words. There may be no guns, no car chases, nor a single fistfight. There’s not even any modern technology except for the brief appearance of a car. And yet the film overflows with energy and conflict. The action in Sarah Polley’s latest film is the titular talking. Yelling, whispering, spitting and crying are the women’s weapons of persuasion.

The film is an adaptation of Miriam Toewe’s book, which fictionalized assaults and rapes that took place in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Toews and Polley begin their story in the aftermath of the violent attacks, once one of the perpetrators has been imprisoned. While the colony’s men go into town to bail him out, the women have two days to decide their course of action. They have three options: stay and fight, do nothing or leave.

For the majority of the film, the women’s representatives (played by Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy) sit in a hayloft to talk it out. Although illiterate, these Mennonite women use their words to name wrongdoings and imagine a future of forgiveness, revenge or relocation. With its narrow focus on the two-day meeting, the film burrows deep into the women’s pain and their own foggy recollections. Their rousing fury at the men is tempered by their fears; not just of the possibility of death, but of the impossibility of an afterlife. 

I spoke with the film’s writer and director, Sarah Polley. 

Sarah Foulkes: Can you talk about the desaturated colours in the film? They’re quite striking. 

Sarah Polley: I was really interested in the treatment of this film visually being like a fable, that it feel like something out of time and out of place. And I was really interested in the idea of it feeling like a faded postcard. So the idea that there’s already a kind of nostalgia for something that’s not even there anymore. I think the very act of them having this conversation means that the world that they’ve been living in is already an artifact. So just having that sense of looking back on something was really important to me. 

SF: Why did you want to distance the audience from our reality? 

Sarah Polley: There is a heightened reality to the film, and I wanted to embrace that and let the dialogue be somewhat stylized and let the concept be somewhat stylized and not fight with that. 

SF: The film is set in 2010, but since it was released I’ve seen a lot of critics describe the film as “Sarah Polley’s MeToo movie.” How do you feel about the film being slotted into that category? Do you feel it’s anachronistic or reductive, or do you feel like it’s recognizing the film as being made within a specific moment in time? 

Sarah Polley: I really appreciate the question because I don’t particularly think of it as a MeToo movie. Miriam wrote this book before the MeToo Movement and sadly it’s an ancient story and it’s a future story. And it’s not a story that was told as a result of the MeToo movement. I think that the conversation that happened because of the MeToo movement created the conditions for a movie like this to be financed and be in the world. But I never quite connect to the idea of it being a MeToo movie, even though I understand what people are talking about. And it’s absolutely a legitimate thing to write about, but it’s not how we thought about it when we were making it. I also hope that the conversation goes further than an exploration of what harms have happened and coming to terms with those harms and calling people out. That’s not really what the film is about. Ultimately, it’s about now that we know what these harms are, how do we move forward and heal in ways that are productive and full of hope and recovery? I think that’s the conversation of the film, not necessarily just the naming of harms. 

SF: One of the interesting things about the difference between the book and the film is that the book is written from the perspective of August Epps, who takes the meetings’ minutes because the women can’t write. You’ve said that you did actually write and record the narration with Ben Wishaw, but then you decided to get Kate Hallett to do it instead. Could you kind of elaborate a little bit on that intuition that you had? Was it a feeling of incompleteness or falseness?

Sarah Polley: I mean, it worked so beautifully in the book to have August as a narrator, and I really loved the way that functions in the book. When we moved it into a different medium, it suddenly became clear to us that we really needed it to come through the voice of one of the survivors of these assaults and to feel this experience through her eyes. And so it was to do with the changing of the medium and what became necessary with the immediacy and intimacy of sound and picture. 

SF: In that regard, what specifically do you think is different in a novel than in a film? 

Sarah Polley: I think it’s that intimacy. That you’re actually hearing and seeing an image in front of you. That it’s so direct that you just suddenly felt the distance of his experience from theirs, even though he did such an amazing job. You needed to hear it through a female voice. 

Jessie Buckley in Women Talking

SF: I was thinking about your other films, which are all quite different from each other, but it struck me that Away From Her and Women Talking are similarly about language. Away From Her is about losing language and Women Talking is about finding the language and what you do when you have found it. And they’re both about the community that you find within that loss or within that discovery of language, whether it’s a retirement community or group of Mennonite women. How does that relationship between language and community play out in your own artistic path and on your sets? 

Sarah Polley: I really like that idea that she’s losing language in Away From Her and they’re finding it in Women Talking. I had never thought of that before. I do feel like the finding of the words for things is so essential to this group of women being able to move forward; the assigning of words and the naming of things and the recognition that happens in that when someone puts a name to an experience or a feeling or even an event that could have just passed into a sort of subconscious murky territory. It’s such powerful stuff. But I don’t think I have a good enough answer to your question. 

SF: You’ve spoken a lot about the working conditions on set and you clearly made an effort to make it as parent-friendly and frankly human-friendly as possible. Is this something that you can picture implementing for future films? Do you think that, as a business model, it could work on a larger scale? 

Sarah Polley: I do. I think people work better when they’re rested and when they’re connected to the people they love. And I think it’s only a good thing in terms of the work itself, but also just in terms of what people have the right to. What’s crazy to me is it feels like around this film there’s this big story of these incredibly humane working conditions and we’re still working a 50-hour work week. We’re still not at the 40-hour work week that the labour movement fought for a long time ago. So the idea that 10-hour days are this big victory is just indicative of how crazy the standards are in this industry in terms of how much we expect people to work. It’s really kind of bonkers. So it was something that was essential for me to go back to making films. I don’t think everyone should have to give up all of their connections to the people they love, but also their caregiving responsibilities, whether they be for children or elderly people or friends or whoever to do their jobs. I think that’s a completely outrageous expectation.

SF: So I guess going on, if you decide to make another film, is that kind of going to be part of the contract? 

Sarah Polley: I think so, yeah. It will rarely be within my power to dictate. In this case, it very much was because I just wouldn’t have made the film without it. I hope I’ll be able to negotiate in the same way next time. But it’s not my money. So there’s always gonna be a lot of conversations around this before it happens, but I would think it’s gonna become more and more the norm because I’ve seen other female filmmakers now do this. I think Marielle Heller did it on the Mr. Rogers movie. I think as more and more women make films who have young kids, they’re gonna start demanding this. And what’s a shame is it’s not like we’re the first parents to be on set ever. The crew members don’t particularly like missing their kids’ lives either. I think finally there’s willingness to at least have this conversation. 

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy in Women Talking

SF: And this is something that I think should be asked not just of female directors, but of the people who have the money and not always just asked of the people who are pushing for this. 

Sarah Polley: Yeah. I remember doing this film in Belgium and you work nine to five or nine to six and you have a lunch break, which, you know, I’ve never seen happen here once. And they just think we’re crazy. Like they don’t understand what we’re doing over here. 

SF: Yeah. And I’m not sure whether it really necessarily yields better final films. I was also thinking about you doing press for this film and talking about sexual assault and rape for months to total strangers must be quite taxing as well. Is there something that you would change about the way that this industry does press? 

Sarah Polley: Oh, that’s interesting. The one thing I’d say is, first of all, it’s been an overwhelming positive experience. I really have had a good time promoting the film and every conversation is different. I haven’t answered the same questions that many times and people seem to map their own stuff onto it. So it’s been good. Here’s a few things I can think of. A, I think allotting people 10 to 20 minutes is really hard. Just having interviewed people myself, being in that kind of time crunch and then the research you have to put in to do it seems not great for journalists. I would say being in a room with someone is so much better and I’m sorry that’s gone out the window. There’s something so much better about someone when you can read their body language and be in a room with them. 

I will say having gone out of the industry for 10 years and knowing that there’d been a lot of changes in terms of the presence of women and BIPOC filmmakers, that coming back into this part of the process, it’s not like everything got evened out in the filmmaking industry itself. We’ve still got a long way to go. But there has been notable progress. Coming onto this side of the process, I will say I am stunned by the absence of more women. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve spoken to about this film are male. And I remember like the first interviews I did when it first screened at Telluride were with men and they were all great interviews and it was fine. I think there’s a problem when you have only one gender, and that’s who you’re talking to about your film. It’s an odd thing. I do feel like there’s some amazing women working as film journalists, but I’m amazed that there hasn’t been more progress on this front. It’s just shocking. What would you change about the way this part of the process is done? 

SF: I definitely think that the in-person interviews tend to change the dynamic. I’ve done in-person interviews that have gone on for an hour just because it turned into a nice conversation even though I only printed 15 minutes worth of it. But I had more to choose from. More female and BIPOC critics would make a big difference. Providing the audience with that proper context to better understand a film and what it’s doing is crucial. I think the 15-minute constraint can be really limiting, as much as it’s good to focus you. You can get rid of all the fluff, but the time constraint can also lead to more clickbaity questions.

Sarah Polley: So true. I have noticed that. Not for you, but people certainly go for the thing to get you to say something that will be a headline.

SF: That kind of constraint can actually be really productive. But I do like talking to someone for more than 15 minutes. 

Sarah Polley: Totally. 

SF: And with that, I think that’s all the time we have. ■

Women Talking (directed by Sarah Polley)

Women Talking is streaming now in Canada on Prime Video.

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