Women Talking, the featured film on night three of the Austin Film Festival, takes a unique twist in developing its source material and story. Some films spring out of a writer’s head, others illustrate true events, and novels provide the stories for many films. Women Talking uses all three sources in an unusual manner.
The twenty-ninth edition of the Austin Film Festival ran October 25 to November 3 in downtown Austin. The festival prides itself on being the first festival to focus on the contribution of writers to the filmmaking process. It also works to further the art and craft of storytelling by inspiring and championing the work of writers, filmmakers, and all artists who use written and visual language to tell a story.
What You See
Women Talking transports you to a remote Mennonite religious colony where terrible crimes occurred. Many of the colony’s women and young girls suffered drugging and rape. As the film begins, the men accused of these crimes are in the hands of the authorities. All the other men, except one, have gone to attempt to free them.
The one exception has recently returned to the colony as a schoolteacher. August, played by Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns, No Time to Die), has experienced the wider world because the colony expelled his family when he was a child.
Eight of the women gather in the hay loft of a barn to debate a course of action. Should they forgive their rapists, stay and fight, or flee before the men return? The women recruit August to take notes at the meetings. This gives him insight into the problem and also more knowledge about Ona, played by Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), the lady for whom he has affection.
Most of the film involves the debate as the women consider the practical, personal, and religious implications of their possible courses of action. Besides Ona, Scarface Janz, played by Frances McDormand, will become a focus of your attention. The discussion in the barn is broken up by brief flashbacks, events around the colony, and moments in the relationship between August and Ona.
Writer/Director Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead, Take This Waltz) created the screenplay for Women Talking. She based it on the bestselling novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, published in 2018.
Toews had become aware of real-life events that took place between 2005 and 2009 in the Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia. The sexual crimes did occur and eventually the elders of the colony identified the men responsible and turned over the rapists to Bolivian authorities.
It was at this point that Toews began her novel. In her preface, she describes the story she tells as “a reaction through fiction” to the reality of what happened. Her novel, and the film, go from reality to what might have happened, and should have happened, but didn’t.
The film implies that all the men who were not rapists themselves wanted the rapists freed. This was not the case, but certain men in the colony did take that position. They felt that the colony, not the government, should handle the matter. Reality, of course, always turns out more complicated than the film version. The Mennonite religion, certainly sexist, restricts women’s education beyond a very basic level, and restricts them to domestic roles. The film shows this accurately.
The men responsible for the rapes were imprisoned and remain incarcerated today. The BBC published a detailed article on the events that inspired the novel and film.
For information about future festivals and the Austin Film Festival’s year-round program, check its website.