Women Talking

Issue 2023, vol. 77

[Editor’s note: Women Talking is the title of a novel by Miriam Toews (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018) and of a 2022 film based on the novel, written and directed by Sarah Polley, winner of an Oscar® for Best Adapted Screenplay.]

A movie based on a meeting in the hayloft of a barn? I don’t often watch a movie more than once, nor claim it is better than the book. I watched Women Talking three times in the theater and it is just as good as the book, if not better. Women Talking had my full attention in more ways than one.

With the Oscar®-winning film Women Talking, Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley masterfully illustrates the flaws, pain, struggle, defiance, love and faith of the characters created by Canadian author Miriam Toews in her 2018 novel of the same name. Ironically, in the book, we get to hear the women talking through the first-person narration of a man – schoolteacher August Epp, whom the women have appointed as “minute-taker.”

From my perspective from living in Bolivia from 2010-14

Between 2005 and 2009, women in Low German Mennonite colonies in Bolivia reported being sexually violated during the night while sleeping. In 2011, eight men were convicted in Bolivian criminal court for breaking into women’s homes, anesthetizing them, and raping them while they were unconscious. In her “Note on the Novel,” Toews clearly states that this novel is “both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.” Throughout the book, Toews uses Low German Mennonite (LGM) personal names and surnames, geographical names, and words/phrases familiar to LGM culture. The movie, however, never refers to “Mennonites” and does not incorporate Low German, save for the names of the characters (and their diminutives).

From the book’s/movie’s perspective

In the novel, all the men of Molotschna Colony are in “the city” posting bail for the imprisoned violators. When the perpetrators return, the women will be “given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven.” The women of “Molotschna” Colony (the specific country is not noted) have two days to discern a response. A ballot of three options, each accompanied by an illustration of its meaning, is drawn up: 1) Do Nothing; 2) Stay and Fight; and 3) Leave. The vote is deadlocked between “Stay and Fight” or “Leave,” so several representatives of each faction meet in the hayloft (the women who voted to “Do Nothing” do not attend the meeting in the barn). The aim of the meeting is for the women to “talk” apart the deadlock before the men return. As these women cannot read or write, they ask August, who has not gone to the city, to take the minutes of the meeting. Except for the lack of a few details, the movie does the same.

The conversations that follow are intense and profound.

What is it about Women Talking that captured my full attention? As a woman reader/viewer, both the book and the movie are on-point for what they claim to be: fiction based on true-life events and “an act of female imagination.” Women Talking has been well reviewed for its contribution to the conversation of violence, abuse, power, patriarchy and women, and so I will focus more on my personal observations from living in Bolivia.

My husband and I served as co-coordinators of the LGM Program of Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia from 2010-14. Our work was inextricably linked to these events and the people who are characterized in Women Talking. Again, the book and movie are excellent and on-point for what they claim to be, but they are not factual. This does not necessarily diminish my insistence that we talk about patriarchy, power, abuse, violence and women, but it does run the risk of  oversimplifying the context and trauma of the victims whose voices need to be heard. The book, much more than the movie, portrays a detrimental binary that posits: men = bad; women = good (the sole exception being August who, as a schoolteacher, is at the bottom of Mennonite colony vocational hierarchy). This binary often runs counter to true-life events. For many people, Women Talking is their first or most in-depth exposure to LGM culture in Bolivia, and a good number have asked me, “Is this really how it happened?”

Allow me to compare and contrast the book/movie with the reality as I experienced it. Even though Women Talking is not set in a defined geographical place, the movie hints at the Bolivian context. The map August gives the women is of the Bolivian and Paraguayan frontier, and they use the Southern Cross for celestial navigation.

Unlike in Women Talking, world maps are allowed in Bolivian LGM colonies. MCC work in Bolivia included gifting many colony schoolteachers globes for their classrooms. This was not controversial, save for a few fundamentalist evangelical missionaries from Europe who contended that the earth is flat! In fact, a father and daughter from one of the more isolated LGM colonies regularly updated, published and sold a popular map of Bolivia that included the location of LGM colonies and their respective villages.

Unlike Women Talking, the men of Manitoba Colony did not sell essential belongings and all travel to “the city” to bail out the perpetrators.  In real life, the Manitoba Colony as well as several neighboring colonies spent more than $400,000 to ensure that the men stayed in prison so that justice could be served.

Unlike Women Talking, LGM women in Bolivia are literate and are allowed to read. Centro Menno, a project of MCC Bolivia, operated two drop-in libraries as well as several traveling book collections and women were the primary patrons. Furthermore, MCC provided three widely circulated print periodicals for LGM men, women and children.

The book portrays colonists being baptized in their early to mid-teens. That is not usually the case. Bolivian LGMs often are baptized around the age of 20-21 (not long before marriage). This is important because, unlike in the book, young boys would not be voting on the status of the women’s forgiveness. Furthermore, it is not true that the colony leaders demanded that the women forgive the perpetrators in order to maintain their status within the colony or eternity. Many men were very protective of women family members’ physical and emotional wellbeing. In the movie, there is a scene as the women are planning their escape in which they find people sleeping outside under the veranda. In reality, as soon as the truth of the rapes came out, many if not most families installed bars on their windows, larger locks on the doors, and even alarms to protect themselves.

The movie portrays only boys and men praying in church or attending school. That is not accurate. All baptized members – both women and men – attend worship together, albeit sitting on separate sides of the church. Girls attend school, but in the most traditional schools, boys generally attend two years longer than girls.

Finally, Women Talking ends with the women choosing to leave en masse. While a mass exodus of women has never happened, nor was discussed in reality, families do often leave particular colonies and move to North America, or to colonies that are more like-minded. Although LGMs in Bolivia might all “look the same,” they are not. There are many different colonies with different emphases of faith and life. At present, there are roughly 130 colonies totaling 95,000 LGMs in Bolivia.

These contrasts are shared less to defend the LGMs in Bolivia from North American fiction, and more to nuance their reality. They are, after all, complex, real people no matter their context.

And while Women Talking over-simplifies true life, it deftly challenges any assumptions that these women – who in truth are not highly educated or particularly literate – do not have the capacity to think critically, reflect on injustice and challenge the status quo.

Sarah Polley’s Academy Award® acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay best sums up why I will probably watch the movie many more times:

“Miriam Toews wrote an essential novel about a radical act of democracy in which people who don’t agree on every single issue managed to sit together in a room and carve out a way forward together, free of violence. They do so not just by talking but also by listening. The last line of our film is delivered by a young woman to a new baby and she says, ‘Your story will be different from ours.’ It’s a promise, a commitment, and an anchor and it’s what I would like to say with all of my might to my three incredible kids … as they make their way through this complicated, beautiful world.”