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Talking about ‘Women Talking’

Writer-director Sarah Polley discusses her latest film, an adaptation of the Miriam Toews novel

Sarah PolleyDerek Shapton

Partway through my conversation with the filmmaker Sarah Polley, she paused and sighed. “Should I go there or not?,” she mused, weighing the options of being candid. We were speaking on Zoom. Polley was promoting her new film, “Women Talking.” Eventually, she went there.

“I do feel like we have to be really careful when we’re doing the ‘women in film’ thing, that it’s not actually about a fashion show,” Polley said. She added that celebrating accomplishments is one thing, but “a bunch of hot ladies in dresses” is another. “It’s suddenly like, oh, I just noticed nobody over 55 has been invited tonight. That’s weird, right? I think we have to be really cautious of how this language gets co-opted to seem progressive, but is actually just in aid of the same old bullshit.”

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Polley, who worked as an actress for decades before she turned exclusively to screenwriting and directing, has a markedly low tolerance for the same old sexist dreck.

From left: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, and Jessie Buckley in "Women Talking." Michael Gibson/© 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved

“Women Talking,” adapted from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel and opening in Boston Jan. 6, is a piercing drama set in a fictional Mennonite colony where many of the women and girls have been regularly drugged and raped. Despite waking up bloody and in pain, the women were led to believe that the assaults were night visions, figments of their imagination. Until, one night, several young women catch the attackers in the act, and discover that the rapists are men from their community.

When Polley first learned about “Women Talking” from a friend in her book club, she hesitated to read the novel, let alone consider it for adaptation. But she soon discovered that the book, which is based on actual events that took place in Bolivia, doesn’t linger on the grimness of the assaults; instead, it focuses on the social aftershocks, the ways “people survive, and heal, and move forward,” as Polley put it.

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The film begins after the revelation and apprehension of the rapists. Devastated, the community’s women — who never received an education and cannot read or write — hold a secret emergency assembly to elect representatives and consider a course of action. The majority of the drama unfolds over the next 24 hours in a hayloft, where the delegates — played by an impressive ensemble cast, including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley — engage in a heated debate over their options. Do they do nothing? Do they stay and fight for rights and respect? Or do they abandon the colony forever?

Sarah Polley on the set of "Women Talking." Michael Gibson/© 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved/Michael Gibson

This particular dilemma is outside the purview of most film viewers. But Polley sees the women’s primary options — do nothing, stay and fight, or leave — as useful in a variety of personal situations. “We did have that conversation early on, where we all realized that those three choices apply to almost every important thing you do in your life,” she said.

Each option comes with additional burdens. Doing nothing means acquiescing to affliction. Fighting requires resources and does not guarantee results. And leaving entails starting over from scratch.

The questions also map onto broader dialogues about feminism. As women, do we want to excel within existing systems or do we want to remodel the system entirely? The feminist work that resonates with Polley, she said, fixes its sights on “building a new society in which things are truly more fair and equitable. It’s not about more female CEOs.”

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Before “Women Talking,” Polley hadn’t made a feature for a decade. Her last film, “Stories We Tell” (2012), is a ruminative documentary ode to her mother, Diane, a stage actress who died in 1990, when Polley was 11.

Sarah Polley in "Stories We Tell."

As reflected in its title, “Stories We Tell” dances around in the space between Diane’s enigmatic life and Polley’s evolving understanding of that life. It investigates family mysteries and observes how traits, sensibilities, and traumas are passed down. You could view “Women Talking,” which opens with a narrator addressing an unborn child, as a spiritual sister to “Stories We Tell.” Both center on matrilineal bonds and explore, as Polley put it, “a sense of what is remembered, what is carried.”

“Women Talking” is also the first feature film Polley has made since she became a mother. Having children, she says, has made her “much less controlling” as a director and has helped her see the benefits of “play and experimentation.” She put these new skills to work during production when her kids asked to come by the set. COVID-19 precautions restricted visits, so Polley — who wrote about her own negative experiences as a child actor in a memoir released earlier this year — did something she thought she would never do: She hired them as extras. “I got strong-armed by my oldest kid,” she said, adding, “It was really just them playing in a field, so it was not a high-pressure situation.”

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A lot has changed since Polley began directing. Her first feature, “Away from Her,” starring Julie Christie, came out in 2007 and earned Polley an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. At the time, the award had gone to women only seven times; 15 years later, the number has risen to eight.

The Oscars may be making slow strides, but most major film festivals now prioritize gender parity in their programming. Of the 101 feature films set to play at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in January, 53 percent are directed by women.

From left: Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy in "Women Talking." Michael Gibson/© 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved

“I do think that for female filmmakers, things have gotten better,” Polley said. She recalled the “really weird and lonely experience” of attending her first film festivals, where she “would literally find one other female filmmaker out of 80 or 90 filmmakers, and I would spend my whole time trying to seek that one other woman out.”

With almost no men onscreen — Ben Whishaw, who plays the women’s considerate note-taker, is the exception — “Women Talking” is a female-centric world. When working with her actors, Polley made an effort to listen and to learn what she called “a different language” specific to each person. Even if she didn’t achieve fluency in that language over the course of the production, she could at least “scratch the surface” of her collaborators’ wants and needs.

“You don’t do good work when you feel like someone’s looking over your shoulder, waiting for you to fail,” she said. “I know I did my best work as an actor when I felt trusted.”

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Natalia Winkelman can be reached at natalia.winkelman@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @nataliawinke.