One of the most surreal experiences I had this year was meeting one of my favorite filmmakers, Sarah Polley. I had the opportunity to interview Sarah for my coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival. To say the least, I’m a super fan. When we met for our interview about her new film, “Women Talking,” I was wearing a T-shirt that her sister-in-law designed on Etsy entitled “the honeybear”. Polley had promoted the shirt during the Telluride and Toronto film festivals on her instagram. I also brought her book Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory for Polley to sign. I started my 2022 reading this book, and it really set the tone for my year. I had been waiting in anticipation for the Polley’s next directorial effort, following her last one from a decade ago, the great documentary, “Stories We Tell”. “Women Talking” did not disappoint, to say the least: it made my top 5 of 2022.
I had done my research about the Mennonite colony that Miriam Toews’ book Women Talking was based on. Not only is this story a microcosm of what has been happening to women from the dawn of time, it is yet another recent account of real women who have been abused through sexual violence by men who look at their female counterparts—their mothers, their sisters, their wives—not as people, but as things they can cruelly use to satisfy their own urges. In the following conversation, I quote actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, who was previously married to the true crime writer Michelle McNamara. She helped unmask the Golden State Killer and wrote the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which elevated the stories of survivors. “Women Talking” shows a hopeful glimpse of what it looks like for women with different perspectives regarding their trauma to come together and act in a peaceful, non-violent way on their journey toward independence.
As detailed in Run Towards the Danger, Polley had suffered for years from a concussion that occurred when a fire hydrant fell on her head. Years of finding the right remedy led her to a therapy that inspired the structure of her memoir. The healing process consisted of running toward things that scared her, rather than avoiding them. Using this as inspiration for her book, Polley looked back at traumatic experiences in her life, from being a child actor and surviving sexual assault to her difficult pregnancies, all of which are explored through the lens of this therapy. This was the perfect book for me to read right before I turned 40. Now that I’ve had that pivotal birthday, I feel like my life is just beginning. At my age, doors aren’t closing, they are opening. Sometimes you have to have some distance from past trauma to really bring it into an empowering perspective. That lesson is in the film too, as the women grapple with how they could go about leaving the colony. Rooney Mara’s character, Ona, talks about being able to forgive the men when she is distanced from them. Once she is in a life that is better for her and her loved ones, she can look at the men from a more secure space.
I didn’t want to waste a second of my time with Sarah Polley. After she commented on the T-shirt I wore in her honor, and took a snapshot of me that she later posted on her Instagram page, I dove into my questions. Our time together flew by, yet I was totally present during my time with her. She gave me a hug at the end of our interview, and I left the room feeling like I was walking on air. ‘Did this really happen?’, I thought. She talked to me like an old friend, which meant the most to me.
I’m so excited to share our conversation about her film “Women Talking” and her comeback as a filmmaker. Don’t miss the film when it arrives in select theaters this Friday, and everywhere next month!
Could you talk a little about the adaptation process?
We did a lot of research about the colonies in Bolivia. What you can learn is fairly limited just because there isn’t a lot of access, but I did as much research as I possibly could. I read and watched everything at my disposal. Oddly enough, I happen to know someone who had lived in that colony while photographing its inhabitants for a couple of months. My other points of entry are the friendships I’ve personally built with Mennonites. I also made sure to have a lot of interactions with the more conservative orthodox communities over the years, and those experiences were very positive. I came from a place of deep respect for the community and the faith itself. I was also very conscious when making the film that the author of the book, Women Talking, Miriam Toews, is a Mennonite. When she tells the story, it’s different than me telling the story as a non-Mennonite.
So I was very conscious of the tricky ethical territory I was treading in telling a story about a community that cannot, based on its belief system, fight back. They can’t get in a fight, they can’t go to the press and they can’t clear up what we’ve misrepresented. There’s a tight and complex ethical line for me to walk on as a non-Mennonite. This series of violent events did happen and it was horrific. It couldn’t be more horrific and that story deserves to be told. I did not want to shy away from that in any way, but it was also important for me that the use of the word “Mennonite” in the film was never on the table for me, because I thought that Mennonites were already so widely misunderstood. I knew we had to be careful about how and when we used the word while never shying away from the fact that, yes, this was inspired by a true and horrific story. It’s very complicated.
How do you hope this film’s amazing ensemble of women reflect what you hope relationships will be between women in our post-#MeToo era?
The relationships between the women felt utopian to me. If there was one person cast differently, I can’t imagine what a different environment it would’ve been. It was a completely ego-less group of women who really were on each other’s side and trying to figure out how to make space for each other all the time. I think that’s unusual in a room of any actors or any people. If you’ve ever been in a committee, you know how hard it is for one person to not take over at some point and no one did. There was this really wonderful sense of support for each other. When somebody would really nail something, everybody would just applaud and run around them and give them a hug. It really felt like the Canadian women’s soccer team at that moment when they were competing. I just felt like there was no difference between what those women were doing and what’s happening here.
We cover stories of sexual violence through our interviews. When I spoke with Nancy Miller of “I’ll be Gone in the Dark,” she quoted Patton Oswalt saying, “The world is angry when they see young, beautiful, smart, vivacious women living independently. There is this compulsion to want to steal that from them.”
That is such an amazing quote. [long pause] I just want to think for a second, that is really interesting. I think patriarchy works in really obvious ways and also in really insidious, mysterious ways. I think the way that we’ve observed patriarchy is something for us to constantly unpack. My hope is that we will start to identify more and more within ourselves the way in which it’s our instinct to tear each other down, to sabotage each other and to sort of judge and view each other on the same terms as someone who had power and patriarchy. I think no one is immune, so I guess that my great wish would be that we’re all in a process of unlearning what we’ve learned in a world that is structured in this way according to a gender hierarchy as well as a race hierarchy and a class hierarchy. I think there are a lot of hierarchies to be unpacked—they come out of us in unconscious ways all the time.
I love how the use of the song “Daydream Believer” reflects how these women are dreaming of a better life for themselves. What do you hope people see in your film?
A whole bunch of things. I think what I most hope is that people bring from the film something that I haven’t thought of yet. I feel like that has been the most exciting thing for me about being in conversation with people about the film. People are mapping themselves and their own experiences onto it and giving me perspectives that I could never have on my own. Hopefully it’s a conversation from enough angles and perspectives that people can relate to it in all kinds of ways that we couldn’t actually anticipate. I mean, for me, I’m really curious and interested in the sort of experiment around democracy. You take this group of women who, while they come from the same community, have very, very different core beliefs about what’s right and wrong. They have different core beliefs of what the way forward is, and they have to hash it out and work it out amongst themselves until they have a kind of consensus to move forward.
It is supremely interesting to me as an experiment around democracy and what that could look like beyond just casting a ballot every four years. I am interested in what a genuinely democratic process of consultation and conversation looks like. I’m also really interested in the fact that they are ultimately figuring out how to build something, not just destroy something, and I feel like we need to know about the world that we have to take down. We need to know it well, we need to know what the issues are and problems are in order to move forward, but it’s also kind of like therapy. You do need to go back into the childhood and you do need to mine the sticky reality—the difficult, awful stuff in order to move forward. But then, you are also moving forward. There is hopefully also a path towards something better, and for me, that’s the potential hope that I have for those women in the film. They are figuring out how to build a better world, not just how to tear the old one down.
I felt good about turning 40 after reading your book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory. What has it been like returning to directing after everything that has happened to you over the past decade?
It’s been amazing—kind of euphoric, to be honest with you. I didn’t know if I was going to make a film ever again for all kinds of reasons. One of those reasons was I didn’t think my head would ever be able to handle it, so just to be able to collaborate with people and share that electricity of collaboration that happens on a set, and feel energized by it, I don’t take any of it for granted anymore. I think that in a weird way, even though my concussion was a horrible experience, I wouldn’t take it back in a thousand years. I would not take it back even if someone offered that to me. It was really hard on me, it was really hard on my family, but I’m definitely a much more engaged and present person after having gone through it. I am a much more grateful person now that I’m back, and I don’t think I appreciated how great the job of filmmaking was at all before this. I mean, I loved it, but I don’t think I had any sense of the absolute joy and privilege of getting to do a job that is about imagination with a whole bunch of really talented adults around you helping you. It’s just incredible.