In the run-up to this year’s Oscars, it’s tempting to ask impossible questions, such as: why are sequels considered adjustments? Why the general disapproval for “White Noise”? And more generally, what do academy voters have against literary material? Instead, I reached out to the only living author whose story is represented by nominees for an adapted screenplay (as well as Best Picture): Miriam Toews, who wrote the 2018 bestselling novel “Women Talking.”
The adaptation, written and directed by fellow Canadian Sarah Polley, captures Toews’ ultimate goal and makes us think about the victims of misogyny: the real women and girls behind her story, as well as women everywhere.
“Women Talking” is based on horrific true events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. From 2005 to 2009, a group of male settlers repeatedly sprayed livestock tranquilizers into homes at night and violently raped hundreds of the community’s women and girls. The colony’s male leaders claimed that the victims told stories—or, given the abundant physical evidence of the crimes, bore divine punishments for their sins. Finally, women caught attackers entering their homes. The men confessed and the leaders handed them over to the police for their own safety.
“Women Talking” imagines that after the arrest of the perpetrators, the women vote on what to do. When this creates a bond between leaving and continuing to fight, the wives of two families are assigned to make a timely decision. These are the women we see talking in a hayloft, hidden from the men of the community.
If your impression of Anabaptists evokes pacifism and hats, Toews’s revelations about the still densely populated fundamentalist contingents will shock you. She depicts an authoritarian patriarchal culture similar to Taliban rule. Toews grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, a member of the same Mennonite sect to which the book’s settlers belong. The founders of the Bolivian colony emigrated from Steinbach; they called their community Manitoba.
Toews was stunned when she learned that her film will premiere at Steinbach’s only cinema. “I was never, ever got to go, I could barely whisper the words ‘Keystone Cinema’ without feeling hot flames licking my heels,” she said during an email interview. In the community, “many will know or be connected in some way with real victims of these crimes.” Other supporters have already seen the film. “There are stories of Mennonites going multiple times, groups of women singing along to the hymns, giving standing ovations for the movie and feeling like they’re ‘in the movie’.”
The process of putting that movie together has been very collaborative. Frances McDormand brought the book to fellow producer Dede Gardner, who also made She Said last year, an adaptation of the New York Times’ book about the Harvey Weinstein investigation. The producers hired Polley, and the women agreed on the importance of decent working conditions for cast and crew: reasonable hours, breaks on request, a regular therapist to help with the trauma-heavy material.
Polley talked to Toews throughout, sending her drafts of the script and taking her to the set. Both women expressed a desire to avoid making the story feel too far from the lives of mainstream audiences. Moments in both book and movie remind us that the unthinkable events have many known aspects. They reflect common forms of powerlessness among women and girls: ignorance about our own bodies, enlisted for uncompensated labor, subjected to intimate abuse, silenced and shamed by male authority figures – and worst, as one woman in the film articulates, made to disbelieve ourselves.
The book only gradually reveals the full horror of the attacks. Early on we know the rough form of the violence, but as the story progresses we learn it extended to toddlers and older women; that it involved incest and led to suicide; and that the victims have become pregnant and infected with a disease – all truthful. “I tried to express the brutality of the attacks with flashes of detail,” Toews said. In honor of that strategy, Polley uses quick, nightmarish flashbacks of the aftermath of the attacks to make sense of what we’re seeing in the hayloft. “Sarah did an excellent job of achieving what I was going for.”
Girls in the colonies don’t learn to read and write, so the women ask August, an educated, friendly former exile, to take minutes of their meeting. That record is the novel and August its narrator, analyzing and pondering his notes, our proxy outsider. Polley minimized his narration in the script, then cut it completely during editing. Instead, she opted for voice-over from one of the cast’s adolescent girls. As we watch scenes from colony life, acting narrator Autje speaks lyrically to us – from the future.
“There’s a certain comfort in what I think really brings the conversations into focus and keeps us tight to the hayloft,” Toews noted. “Sarah not only made us understand, but also feeling how important it is for the women to describe their beliefs and desires before making a decision.” Their daughters’ futures are at stake.
Polley deliberately omitted contextual particulars from her script; all we know is that the religion uses the Bible, that the Southern Cross is visible, and that a 2010 census is in progress (a member of parliament drives by, loudspeakers blare a 1960s pop song). The film also omits some salient features of the women’s true disenfranchisement – for example, that they know only a nearly extinct language and that the colony’s leadership denied them health care to keep the violence a secret. But Toews called the film “its own true and artsy thing” and notes another change from her novel.
“The Monkees song surprised me! In the book it’s ‘California Dreamin’.’ The two songs exist on slightly different emotional registers,” Toews said. “The Monkees song is a fun song and very catchy, pure joy. “California Dreamin'” is melancholy and longing, with a somewhat gloomy metaphorical resonance.” Now she has also become attached to ‘Daydream Believer’.
In real life, the rapists were tried and convicted and continue to serve time. But it is rumored that the attacks have continued with different perpetrators and that some of the victims – under social and spiritual pressure – have campaigned for the men’s release. I asked Toews if the idea of a coordinated exodus of women from the community was mostly fantasy. “Perhaps unlikely and incredibly complex, and certainly fraught, but not fantasy,” she said.
“Mennonites are constantly migrating en masseand it has been for centuries,” she added, “always moving from one place to another to set up colonies and communities where they are given a kind of self-government and the freedom to practice their religion. It’s not hard to imagine a group of Anabaptist women doing essentially the same thing, but for their own reasons.’ On a smaller scale, “An immigration attorney recently told me that she has been working on the cases of several Anabaptist women, victims of sexual assault, seeking asylum in Canada, and that they qualify under refugee status requirements.”
Producer Gardner has said that a successful adaptation gives audiences the same feeling they had at the end of the original book. “Women Talking” achieves that and closes with the tone of faith and collective will for change. Let’s hope it does more than just talk – and collect those awards in the meantime.
Johnson’s work has appeared in The Guardian, the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.