Women Talking [Film Review]
Released: February 16, 2023
Director: Sarah Polley
Starring: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey.
Last week I attended the preview screening of Women Talking and while I knew the gist of the storyline from what I had read online, I was curious on how the film would tackle such serious subject matter.
The film opens with a young woman waking up in her bed, her legs covered in blood and bruises, a victim of rape. In an isolated Mennonite colony, eight men have been sent to jail on rape charges. The infuriating part being they were sent there for their protection and not because of their crimes, after one of the victims attacked the men (all locked in a shed) with a scythe. Women seem to be of little value in this colony as we discover they have been gaslit about their attacks blaming everything from God punishing the women for their sins to ghosts, and they haven’t been taught to read or write. Only the boys attend school. As the rest of the townsmen travel to bail out the accused, the women are given an ultimatum: the women must forgive the men when they return to secure their place in Heaven and any woman who refuses with be ex-communicated from the colony.
The women hold a referendum where every woman can vote to stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. While some vote to stay and do nothing, there’s a majority tie between leaving or fighting. Over the next two days, eleven women come together to try and agree on what is the best option for everyone. There are two men left on the colony during this time: August who is the colony’s school teacher and Melvin, a transgender man who has ceased talking to the adults since being raped. August isn’t considered a threat by the women because he can’t farm (apparently that’s a sign of masculinity) and is asked to take the meeting notes. The women discuss religion, the pros and cons of staying vs leaving and what forgiveness means. Do you even really need to forgive a person who has assaulted you or your children?
While watching the movie, we weren’t aware of the timeline this is set in and just automatically assumed this was the early 1900’s until a scene with a truck playing ‘Daydream Believer’ by The Monkees, drives by to do the Census. It’s at this moment we find out this is all set in 2010. While the movie itself is fictional, the story itself is very true. A Mennonite colony in Bolivia saw eleven men convicted on rape charges in 2011, each getting 25 years in prison. The men were spraying chemicals into the bedrooms to knock out entire families before breaking in to rape the wives and daughters of the household. More than 100 women came forward and it’s suspected that number is much higher. Of course, the men are all claiming to be innocent.
For such a grim story it has been told delicately because quite frankly, nobody should need to visualise a rape to know rape is a horrific violation. Females of all ages, as young as 4 years old, have been victims and instead of showing us the assaults or talking about it in graphic detail, we are instead told in a few words just enough to know an assault occurred, or shown quick glimpses of some of the victims who have woken up to the aftermath not knowing what happened to them. This alone is shocking enough and drives the point across of how violent these acts were.
The film also portrays how there is no one way to deal with trauma and nobody is weaker for not dealing with it better than the next. In a scene where one woman attacks another over her ‘attention seeking’ panic attack, the other women shut her down quickly. They have all been through something horrible and they need to be standing together, not fighting. These women might be illiterate and unaware of what’s beyond their colony but for women not allowed to have their own thoughts or opinions, they are far from stupid and quite capable of intellectual discussion on all matters. These women are fearless and willing to do what needs to be done to keep themselves and their daughters safe.
Film review by Katie Torrance
Women Talking is now showing in cinemas across Australia
Find local sessions here
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