On this day last year Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking debuted at Telluride Film Festival. After taking the world by storm this past year, this anniversary is the perfect reason to celebrate the genius behind the film, Sarah Polley.
The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Academy Award ceremony. However, Sarah is not a newcomer to film. She began her movie and television career at six years old, appearing in numerous roles, which included critically acclaimed appearances in The Sweet Hereafter and My Life Without Me. Later, Sarah established herself as a talented director in several short films as well as feature films, including Away from Her and Stories We Tell. Her work as a director has earned her numerous awards and nominations, including a Genie Award for Best Director.
It was, after all, the reason Sarah took home an Oscar.
Sarah based the screenplay for Women Talking on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews. Women Talking is a fictionalized account of real-life events that took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. In 2005,it was discovered that over a hundred women and girls from the community had been drugged and raped by a group of men in the community. Until the brutal rapes, the women fully accepted their status as inferior to the men in their world. The novel explores the aftermath of the attacks and the response of the women in the community, who gather in secret to discuss their options and decide how to move forward. The film is short on action, focusing instead on the dialogue among the women as they search for and ultimately decide on a path forward. The story is proof that a film that explores its themes through dialogue, rather than action, can be riveting.
The story is proof that a film that explores its themes through dialogue, rather than action, can be riveting.
The collaboration among the women as they work through their differences to find a solution reflects the collaborative effort involved in the film-making. Sarah spoke with Miriam throughout the entire project, from sending her drafts to having her on set. However, Sarah was careful to make her film its own, creating an entirely new visual language that had a different creative logic from Miriam’ novel. For example, Sarah and the film’s editor (Christopher Donaldson), decided to remove the character of August (Ben Whishaw) as the film’s narrator, and replace him with Autje’s narration (Kate Hallett). In addition, in Sarah’s adaptation, the timeline is left purposefully unclear. The story is set in 2010, but there is no mention of recent events, modern technology, or geography. While this absence can be explained by the community’s strict adherence to traditionalism, it also showcases the timeless nature of the story. The themes–the subjugation of women for the benefit of men, sisterhood, and male brutality–invoke the hashtag “Me Too” movement, the suffragettes, and countless other battles by women to have their voices heard.
Collaboration is a hallmark of the film. When Sarah was trying to capture the moment after an assault when the victim is unable to consign anything to memory, she worked with her team for weeks, considering complex soundscapes of animal roars and screams to invoke the mental chaos experienced by the victim. Nothing was sounding quite right until the film’s composer, Hilda Guðnadóttir, brought in a simple bell. The bell created a personal physical reaction for everyone on the set. Sarah asked Hilda why she thought the bell was so effective, and Hilda responded, “It’s because it’s doomsday and a call to prayer, it’s both.” Sarah then put this powerful phrase in the script.
Collaboration is a hallmark of the film.
The cast and crew who worked on the film described Sarah as one of the most engaged directors they had worked with, one who was actually interested in their input. Sarah is a collaborator. It may be that women became more skilled at collaboration because domination wasn’t an option for most of human history. Interestingly, collaboration may be the key to the quality of this film.
If two female artists hadn’t brought their focus and talents to this real life horror story, it is likely the story wouldn’t have been told. But it isn’t simply the fact that women’s stories are overlooked when society fails to recognize women artists. Of course, women’s stories are different from many of men’s stories, but in addition, the creative process, filtered through the experience of oppression, can reveal a new process of collaborative creation, a fresh approach to filmmaking and a new way of seeing the world. Coincidentally, the film Women Talking tells the story of collaborative creation and an oppressed group grappling with finding a new way to see the world, despite the resistance of the men to change.
Sarah Polley referenced that resistance in her Oscar acceptance speech when she delivers the “First of all I just want to thank the Academy for not being mortally offended by the words women and talking, so close together like that.” She probably intended it to be funny, but the audience wasn’t roaring with laughter. Maybe because it’s still too soon.
© Fiona Flanagan (9/2/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Julia Lasker’s celebration of Sarah Polley here.
Watch Women Talking here.
Watch Sarah receive her Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 95 annual Academy Awards.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Los Angeles, CA. 12th Mar, 2023. Sarah Polley in the press room for 95th Academy Awards – Photo Room, Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles, CA March 12, 2023. Credit: Elizabeth Goodenough/Everett Collection/Alamy Live News – Image ID: 2PBPAEF
Bottom photo: Judith Ivey stars as Agata and Claire Foy as Salome in director Sarah Polley’s film WOMEN TALKING. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Michael Gibson. © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.