When we think of an ultra-conservative religious community, we usually think of the Amish. Besides them, there are countless similar groups – the Mennonites, for example, have about 1.4 million people all over the world from India to Latin America. They are a community that lives completely isolated from the world, in an absolutely puritanical way, that is: they keep themselves away from modern life, do not rely on technology, their clothing is also strictly simple, they have their own schools and churches. Their main creed is the preservation and practice of Christian values, including non-violence. The 7 men who were put on trial in 2011 for drugging and raping 130 women with animal tranquilizers between 2005 and 2009 were members of such a collective in Bolivia. As members of the Manitoba colony, they had considerable influence, especially over women: that is why they were able to persuade hundreds of them to confess after threatening them and their families. Despite this, 150 women appeared in court, and the men were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
So the women spoke, they were heard and justice was served to them.
This story inspired the writer Miriam Toews, whose Women Talking Sarah Polley adapted her novel. And the film of the same name – just like the book – is about exactly what the title promises: about women who speak. And they couldn’t do anything more far-reaching than that. Inspired by Toews, Polley gives voice to women who are oppressed, abused, victimized, and thus forced to become survivors. And this in itself gives them power. Let’s think about it: in Hungary alone, every fifth woman is a victim of violence, and at least that is the number of those who have attempted to be raped during her life, and the majority of abuses are usually committed by someone they know. Despite this, 99% of rapes go unpunished. This alone shows how important it is to listen to women. By speaking out, they cannot change the past, but they can ensure that similar atrocities do not happen to their daughters, sisters and mothers in the future. That’s why it’s called a Women Talking its narrator – who, as it turns out later, is one of the little girls – to an unborn member of the colony conceived by violence.
Fight or run
The exploitation that the Women Talking the experience of women is extraordinary: as in the Bolivian case, they are drugged and raped every single day, regardless of age, while some of them also have to endure abuse by their own husbands. They understand the latter, because they are awake, when it happens to them – but the former is incomprehensible to them: the members of the colony, from the little girl to the aunt, only notice that something has happened to them when they wake up covered in bloody sheets and with their teeth knocked out. Of course, the men found an explanation for it: demons, spirits, and even the work of Satan himself. Or what’s even better: nothing happened, it’s all just the product of women’s wild imaginations. Those women who, having never been to school, cannot read and write, have only their faith and common sense left – but this methodical gaslighting is slowly starting to take away that too. Who knows how long this would have continued if Salome hadn’t found the man abusing her four-year-old daughter and attacked him with a sickle. Since he caught one, the names of the others were soon revealed – the rapist gave up his accomplices with immeasurable persistence – so the women of the colony were left with three choices: forgive the perpetrators, as the community leaders ordered; they stay and fight or flee.
Among the options, they decided their fate by voting, which in itself was a milestone in the lives of these women, who had practically no right to vote until now. The votes were equally divided between flight and fight, not by chance: in an emergency, in order to survive, exactly these two reactions are brought about by our sympathetic nervous system; this is called the fight or flight reaction. And these women are really fighting for their lives. However, the final decision was entrusted to the women and daughters of the three families of the colony, and Women Talking actually conveys this, i.e. the longest and most important conversation of their lives – we learn about everything else only through flashbacks and narration. What is the best choice? Take revenge? But if so, how do they do it so as not to lie to their faith? If they leave the community, is it cowardly running away or bravely standing up for themselves? A dilemma that also becomes a metaphor for women living in abusive relationships:
when does the point come when you can’t stay and fight any longer and you just have to quit?
Anger that never goes away
Even though the Women Talking based on its puritanical costumes and setting, it could take place anytime from the 1800s to a dystopian future, some modern aspects place the story in the present. Thus, for example, the exclamation “not all men” (which is often used with a shockingly sexist connotation by men who speak on the topic of violence against women) is directed at the male children, the sensitive and intelligent August, who writes down the decision, and the trans boy, Melvin looking at. However, a single moment pulls us out of the imagined time plane and thrusts us mercilessly into the present: the car carrying out the 2010 census. In this moment, the universal story becomes really close, proving the fact that the position of women has changed almost nothing over time. This makes it all the more shocking how much power these girls and women have by simply voicing their pain.
The film tells the story entirely with a female cast – the only man whose face we see, that is Augustut, who is hopelessly in love with Ona, is portrayed by the otherwise gay Ben Wishaw with immeasurable empathy. Still, the trio of Claire Foy, Jesse Buckley and Rooney Mara stand out the most Women Talkingin. Foy and Mara represent the two extremes in the group, thus embodying two archetypes: the mother (Salome trembles with rage for her little girl and demands revenge) and the virgin (Ona, who became pregnant by force, reminds the others of the teachings of Jesus, her quiet determination is guided by love) . Because of the performances of the actresses, Women Talking becomes both a puritanically restrained and a loudly rebellious work: every word only increases the ever-boiling temper in us as viewers, and we would prefer to use a megaphone to shout out what the women have to say.