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Sarah Polley wants film 'Women Talking' to start a conversation about women reclaiming their agency

Sarah Polley poses for photographers upon arrival for the premiere of the film "Women Talking" during the 2022 London Film Festiva. (Scott Garfitt/AP)
Sarah Polley poses for photographers upon arrival for the premiere of the film "Women Talking" during the 2022 London Film Festiva. (Scott Garfitt/AP)

Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment. 

In “Women Talking,” the women and girls — ages 4 to late-70s — of an isolated religious community are drugged and brutally raped in their sleep. Though they’re told it was done by Satan, men in the community are arrested for the crimes. When the men are in town, the women gather to decide what to do: forgive the men under the guise that they’ll be accepted into heaven if they do, or leave the colony.

Filmmaker Sarah Polley adapted the screenplay from Miriam Toew’s novel of the same name, which is based on true events. Polley’s film picked up two Oscar nominations: Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Upon reading Toew’s novel for the first time, Polley says she was struck by its power and rawness.

“I’d spent a lot of time thinking about what had gone wrong when we talked about violence against women when we had the sort of reckoning around the #MeToo movement,” Polley says. “There was a very healthy collective unpacking of what had been so insidious and gone wrong, and that was important. But what this book was doing was it was talking about, ‘okay, now what? What do we want to build?’ Not just what we want to destroy.”

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When writing the screenplay, Polley says she wanted the experiences of the women in the film to feel universal. The questions they ask themselves — should I do nothing, leave or stay and fight? — can be applied to a plethora of tough situations.

Though the novel, and, in turn, the screenplay are based on a real occurrence in a Mennonite community in the mid-2000s, the film never mentions the religious sect by name. That’s also an attempt to make the experience resonate with as many different viewers as possible.

“I was also very conscious that, as someone who’s not Mennonite making this film, I didn’t want to give people permission to ‘other’ these issues and to be able to say, ‘This happens there, but not here,’” Polley says. “Ultimately this film — the way it’s realized — is a fable, and it’s about all of us.”

Though the shots of the idyllic, rural community portray stunning natural beauty, Polley says she was careful not to romanticize all aspects of the community. But she did purposefully include the positive parts of the colony that brought the women at its center peace and joy to show how much they would have to give up in order to leave.

Additionally, Polley pointedly centers women and allows them to tell their own stories. In Toews’ novel, the narrator is a man. But in her adaption, Polley reframed his role as a notetaker scribing the women’s accounts. She paints him as an empathetic ally while still allowing the survivors to control their own narratives.

“Including him is almost subversive and a really useful thing, because ultimately we want to believe there’s hope,” Polley says.

Years after the first #MeToo story surfaced online and amidst the fallout of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Polley knows that audiences will harbor a range of emotions while watching the film. Some viewers will inevitably be sexual assault survivors themselves. Polley says she took great care to avoid triggering imagery by showing this extraordinary violence in tiny fragments, mainly in survivors’ memories of the events.

“What was important was the impact these assaults had on these women. So the moments afterward, how they moved through it, how they move together as a community and tried to look for healing,” she says. “We are at a heightened moment right now, I think, where we realize that things we take for granted are not at all guaranteed unless we’re willing to fight for them over and over and over again, no matter how exhausting that is.”

Editor’s note: This post was edited to reflect the film’s Oscar nominations. This story was rebroadcasted on Feb. 15, 2023. Find that audio here.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtGrace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.