Sunday, September 24, 2023

Women Talking: The Hidden Roots of the New Movie and Source Material

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Shreya Christina
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At the beginning of women talk – both the movie and the novel from which it was adapted – we’re told this is a work of “female imagination.” The question then is: What story is being depicted?

Maybe it’s clear. The story comes out from a gruesome true story of 2011, in which seven men from an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia (populated by the descendants of the Eastern Europeans who settled there in 1874) were convicted of drugging and serial raping more than 100 women from their community. (An eighth was convicted of providing the drug, a cow anesthetic derived from belladonna.) Author Miriam Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite community and considers herself a “secular Mennonite” despite being excommunicated, took up the story and started working on it. She envisioned a scenario where the women of the community decide whether to do nothing, stay in the community and fight, or leave.

The resulting novel has often been interpreted as a cry of desperate defiance, in a metaphorical sense for the struggles of women everywhere, whether they come from an oppressive patriarchal religious community or not. That it was initially released in 2018 — less than a year after the #MeToo hashtag became a movement and a synonym — certainly adds to that reading.

For the film, writer and director Sarah Polley, who has recently written about her own experiences of destructive behavior by men, did what any good adaptation should and found her version of the story in the original. With a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw and Frances McDormand (in a small but thematically pivotal role), she tells a story about learning to unlearn oppression, about embracing freedom after violence. It’s an expertly crafted, conversational film that reveals different ways in which women throughout the ages and around the world have responded to violence and abuse: living with submission, fighting it, fleeing from it, or trying to reshape society from within. It depicts a feminist future.

But reading the novel closely reveals some additional layers – layers that disappear in the movie. The explicit backbone of the novel has to do with a figure from ancient Christian history: St. Augustine, who is reflected in the book’s narrator, August Epp, as well as in the women’s conversations about the flow of time, the nature of memory, the meaning of faith, and more drawn from Augustinian thought. August Epp and the conversations remain in the film, but this reference is gone. That has implications for the film, although an Augustinian thread still ties them together.

In the novel, August tells us that his mother’s name was Monica and that his family was excommunicated from the colony when he was a child, he thought at the time for a sinful act he committed: stealing pears. Readers of Augustine’s Groundbreaking Book confessions know that Augustine famously did the same as a boy: he stole a load of pears with his friends, just to enjoy the misbehavior. He credits his mother Monica (himself the patron saint of mothers) as the force that led him back to the faith.

In one of Augustine’s most famous texts, City of God, written after the fall of Rome, Augustine proposes the idea that people inhabit either the City of God, characterized by those who seek the truth, or the City of the people, inhabited by those who want only their own pleasure and the cares of this world. Many of the women’s conversations, both in book and film, reflect this concern, though it’s easy to miss without the Augustine markings. The City of God is characterized by love for others; the City of Men is all about love for yourself. And the City of God, says Augustine, is the one that will not crumble.

The women readily recognize this truth, and one of the women, Ona, suggests that the women “pursue a new religion, extrapolated from the old one but focused on love.” In the novel, when the women discuss the community they dream of building, they are talking about building the City of God on Earth. (They are emphatic not want to recreate another city of men.)

The women’s ability to reach conclusions similar to that of a church father gives the distinct sense that they do not need to be led to the truth by men; after experiencing suffering and spending their lives in more or less forced service, when they get a little freedom to talk to each other, they come to the same place as the greatest minds.

All this is underlined by the naming in the novel of a character named Peters, who acts as the leader of the colony and thus the main villain. Even if he did not rape the women himself, he is complicit in the act and has given shelter to the men who did it. “Peter” is the name of the apostle Jesus said he would build his church on, and Peter is often considered the first pope. The implication is devastating.

Much of this is more or less necessarily eliminated in the movie version of women talk. Many of the conversations have been preserved, but in abridged form and largely focused on the question of stay, fight or leave. Peters is not mentioned, and neither is Monica. Augustus is no longer the narrator of the story, although he remains a character. Other elements from the books also disappear: an incident involving two brothers from a nearby community and two teenage girls; the suggestion that the women could descend directly into a literal raging fire; the knowledge that the women are not only illiterate, but that they do not even speak Spanish, the language of their neighbours, because they have only learned Low German from their ancestors.

Those omissions don’t really hurt the film itself, but they do change the nature of what’s being presented. women talk, the novel, is about knowing that the men who hurt you, who do evil in the name of God or themselves, will never get what they deserve in this life. Scars remain. Children born of rape are born. Memories don’t go away. So how do you envision a future? What world can the women imagine? Can they imagine life outside this colony?

A final piece from the novel – revealing the identity of August’s actual father – brings this reading together and leaves the story in a not quite comfortable place. The women have left, but they may be heading straight into catastrophe. August knows he should stay in the colony, but he’s not sure how to proceed. The book does not end with a triumph. It is a sense of impending doom.

The ending of the film is a bit happier. For example, there is no threat of fire, although there are dangers. We are not fully aware that August sees in himself a memory of the violence and of the heroic act of staying. And of course the Augustinian layers disappear. women talkthe film, is about leaving in search of a better life; it is a story of feminist resistance, of the cutting off of patriarchy on its knees.

Yet both versions of the story lean on the same Augustinian question, and that’s what connects them. For what inspired Augustine’s entire life to write was the struggle with the problem of evil (sometimes called “theodicy”), put most succinctly in a well-known question: If God is good, why do bad things happen? Or to put it another way, how can you believe in an all-powerful, good God if that God doesn’t stop evil in the world? How can you understand this contradiction?

For some women in the colony, the answer is to refuse. McDormand – arguably the biggest name in the movie – is cast in an almost silent little part, precisely to show the decline that occurs when we decide we should just carry on without talking. You keep waiting for her to get a big epiphany to change, and… she just doesn’t. Not all women want to overturn the order of things.

But honestly, when I think of women talkThe ultimate approach to the question sends chills down my spine. How do you recognize evil? The woman’s answer comes from a long Augustinian answer, namely: you don’t.

As Augustine writes, evil was not created by God; it is a perversion of the created good. And while we want to live in and work fervently for a world without evil, we will never achieve that in this lifetime. By ‘understanding’, explaining evil, it would diminish. In both book and film, the women understand this.

Augustine’s solution is deeply Christian in nature – to believe in the ultimate victory of evil by a God who endured it himself on a cross – but you don’t have to believe in that (and it’s not clear women talk characters do too) to see how the story reacts. At the end of both stories, August is tasked with making a list of all that is good in the world. Sun. Stars. buckets. Birth. The harvest. He includes fly. manure. Wind. And Women. Augustine suggested that people are defined by what they love and what they desire, and August notes in the novel as he rounds up the list: “My list is a list, listless. The origin: list, from Middle English, meaning desire. That is also the origin of the word ‘listen’.”

And that is perhaps the greatest gift of seeing women talk translated from page to screen. We no longer read in the shift of medium. The women talk, and we are listen.

women talk premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film will hit theaters on December 2, 2022.

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