NEW YORK (AP) — When Sarah Polley flew from her home in Toronto to the U.S. this year for the release of her movie “Women Talking,” she had conversations with customs officials that usually went something like this:
“Why are you here?”
“I’m showing a movie.”
“What’s the name of the movie?”
“Then I either get the biggest watch you’ve ever seen or I get something overtly confrontational like, ‘I’ve had enough of this in my life.’ I’m not going to see this movie,” says Polley. “Then I have to decide if I’m going to take the bait and risk not getting into the country.”
Sometimes, he takes the bait. The title, she notes, is not “Screaming Women” or “Screaming Women.” And yet he discovered that it is often perceived as confrontational.
“One guy I asked, ‘Well, if I told you there was this movie called ’12 Angry Men,’ would you feel the same way?”’ Polley, the 43-year-old Canadian director and actor, said at a recent stop. in New York. “He was like, ‘I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think you should sit with it then. I still want to go to the country, I’m just saying sit with it.’
As simple as its title, “Women Talking” is a radical work, both in its subject matter and its execution. It is adapted from Miriam Toews’ acclaimed 2018 novel, loosely based on true events, about an ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia, where many of the village’s women gather in a haystack to discuss a deeply disturbing revelation: Men in their colony drugged and raped in their sleep.
The conversation that unfolds between the women (the ensemble includes Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy and Ben Wishaw as the lone man in the room) is fraught with questions of justice, fate and spirituality. Should they stay or should they go? Rebuild the community or start over?
However specific the circumstances, the dialogue—by turns furious, anguished, ruminative, and hopeful—more properly takes place in a realm of myth. “Women Talking” could be anywhere, anytime. Conflicting opinions could even be a woman’s inner monologue. It’s a story that resonates with today’s #MeToo realities, but it’s also archetypal, timeless.
“I’m really curious about a way forward,” Polley says. “I’m really curious about what it’s like to not judge myself if and when anger comes up, just not live there. What does healing look like and what does building something better look like.”
It was this forward-thinking nature in “Women Talking” that first impressed Frances McDormand, a producer on the film who also plays a small role as a character named Scarface Janz. After reading Toews’ book, McDormand sent it to Dede Gardner, the Oscar-winning producer and president of Plan B Entertainment.
“When I read it, I was really confused about the conversation around predatory abuse, predatory abuse of power, what hadn’t changed and what seemed to literally be reversed since I was an idealistic, wide-eyed, bushy-tailed girl. at 17,” says McDormand. “Everything I thought was possible seemed to be changing.”
“Miriam framed the conversation about the future,” adds McDormand. “Not for the past or the murky present, but for a bright future where the rules can be changed.”
As the production took shape, with Polley writing the script, “Women Talking” itself became an opportunity to challenge and recreate the male-written rules of the film industry. Polley, director of the Alice Munro adaptation “Away From Her” and the family investigation “Stories We Tell,” had three children in the decade since she directed her last film. He wanted to foster a more humane work environment, with childcare, reasonable hours and open dialogue.
“We literally made a wish list: If it was a utopian world, what would it look like?” says McDormand. “There is a difference between a matriarchal work system and a patriarchal system. The whole process was different because women were speaking. I really like Dede’s answer on this. He says: It’s not that hard to do. You just bake it into the budget. I think that’s a really great phrase that we should be using more in the industry. You bake shorter days. You keep the idea that the entire crew should not sacrifice their personal lives to make the film. It’s not cancer research.”
Foy, who poignantly portrays a woman named Salome, entered a cinematic environment unlike any she had encountered before.
“It wasn’t like it was an all-female set or anything like that,” says Foy. “But it was the first time I did something from a female perspective and about something that women experience as they are, as opposed to how it was in films directed by people who are not women. There are basically three generations of actors on this set, and all of them were doing it for the first time – which I don’t think is necessarily a glowing report of the film industry.”
A title card at the beginning of “Women Talking” describes it as “an act of female imagination.” Often, this fantasy was inspired by actual experience that went into the film. A second or simultaneous dialogue appeared during the filming of the film as the troupe shared stories with each other. A therapist specializing in sexual assault trauma was present on set.
“Those conversations would be with people of all genders on our set, and we’d be better off through everyone’s collective experience,” says Polley. “These were, for me, the most magical moments.”
“Inevitably and understandably at the beginning of this conversation that happened over the last five years, there was a lot of naming and labeling people, and that can be an important part of the process,” says Polley. “But I think a more important part of the process in my mind is looking at the systemic issues that lead people to be able to behave like this.”
Outside of the often hesitant #MeToo public debates, “Women Talking” has found an enduring conversation based on unity, mutual respect, and the possibility of creating a new path forward.
“It was magic, basically,” says Foy. “It was a magical, if not painful and sometimes very difficult, experience. But it was the reason one does this for a living.”
The actors reached the thatch by one of two ladders. It was, says McDormand, like entering a sacred space. For McDormand, the experience of making “Women Talking” was like forging something new in a film industry that has made strides for women behind the camera, but a film like “Women Talking” is still a clear exception.
“Speaking from the position of a 65-year-old man in the industry, it’s a really good time for all of us to sit still, shut up and listen,” says McDormand. “That’s what I’ve been blessed to do with Sarah and Dede and watch them take the industry to the next place it needs to go. No more stagnation. Not interested.”
Just getting “Women Talking” shot during the pandemic after a one-year delay due to COVID-19 was an achievement. For Polley, the most heartbreaking thing was that it proved that such a conversation is possible, in a straw or anywhere else.
“It felt so utopian in so many ways that I think it changed my worldview,” says Polley. “I just feel a lot less cynical after this experience.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed without permission.