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Women Talking: the film/the book
Raising questions of art, life, and ancient philosophy
Phaedrus is probably not the first name that comes to mind after viewing Women Talking (2022), Sarah Polley's brilliant film, based on Miriam Toew's 2018 novel of the same name. Nor are questions about the differences between talking and writing of top-level concern. But thoughts around these topics spun in my brain for weeks after viewing the film. I try to sort it out below.
We'll get back to Phaedrus in a moment.
First, Polley has made a movie that will stick around like Ezra Pound's definition of poetry: "News that stays news." She has said that she was making a movie that could operate as a fable, a story lifted out of the particulars that could expand to fill a broader context. In this, she has succeeded, even as it's important to remember the movie is a story based on a story based on real-life events.
I haven't read the book, but when it was released in 2018 I saw the author read from it in Toronto and participate in an on-stage interview. Asked if she will ever tire of writing about Mennonites, she said after every book she hopes she is done, but then something happens. In this case, she read about the real-life events in Bolivia that form the basis for Women Talking.
"I'm sort of like Sherlock Holmes for Mennonites," she said. "Something happens, and I feel I have to go and figure it out."
The word Mennonite does not appear in the film, nor does the word Bolivia. We're in the world of fable, remember, something that never seemed more true to me than when The Monkees's song "Daydream Believer" saturated the theatre. What are we daydreaming? What are we believing? the filmmaker seemed to be demanding, as children danced through fields and women went about their day, unmolested.
Because the world of the action of Women Talking is saturated with uncertainty. The characters are almost exclusively women and children (one man, the school teacher, has pen and paper and is the notetaker). The setting is rural and one would say beautiful if one weren't overwhelmingly aware of the horrors that occurred before the action begins, and that the central point of the action is: What to do about it? Stay and fight? Stay and forgive? Leave?
The horrors are the rapes of the women, perpetuated anonymously while the women slept and with the aid of drugs to keep the women blacked out. For years, the women knew something was happening but they couldn't figure out what. And then they did. The perpetrators are rounded up by other men, who take them to the authorities. The women remain in the community to figure out what they will do. The men have told them they have until they return to forgive — 48 hours.
There are other horrors. The women are illiterate, for example. They have been kept from learning. They are controlled and belittled and dominated in many ways. This is why, among other things, this book/movie is called Women Talking and not Women Writing.
This is where Phaedrus comes in.
The book Women Talking is narrated by the man, the school teacher, who has been asked by the women to take the minutes of the meeting the women have to decide their future. Polley has said the first draft of her screenplay also had a male narrator, but then she changed it to a woman. It was a good choice; it helps bring the voices of the victims to the fore. The odd role of the man/writer in the film, though, remains. Spoiler: Near the end of the film he tries to give the notes he's taken to one of the women, but she refuses to take it, telling him that he is, effectively, responsible for the record. The women asked him to take the minutes. They are his burden now.
The difference between talking and writing is one of the themes of Plato's dialogue, Phaedrus. As one online site notes:
Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the propriety of writing speeches. Writing is a relatively new and ambivalent technology in Socrates’s eyes—it promotes the appearance of wisdom while undercutting the reality of it. This is because writing is silent and lifeless, unable to respond to inquiry or challenge. Philosophical dialectic is superior, because it’s adapted to each specific soul and, through interaction, guides that soul toward wisdom.
Is writing a form of speech? One of my undergraduate classes in Rhetoric and Professional Writing, University of Waterloo, circa 1990, circled around this question. At first, I thought that seemed reasonable. Now, no. For one, speech is transient, writing offers the illusion of permanence. "Get it in writing," lawyers advise. Why? "It has weight." "It will stand up better." We're only inches away from: "It's more real."
For another, writing leads to other writing, enables mass communication, Marshall McLuhan, endless abstraction, disconnection from subject and object, and lots of other stuff. In Women Talking, the book and movie formats raise different questions about speech and texts, art and life.
Polley begins her movie with the screen-filling statement: "What follows is an act of female imagination." Women's voices saturate every scene. We enter the realm of myth. Toews's novel, on the other hand, is made up of the school teacher's notes of the women's meeting. It is the voices of the women told through the pen of a man, as it could only be in this Bolivian Mennonite community. Writing, there, is an act of male power. In the novel, it is male power mixed and undercut with female words. We enter the realm of literature and Frygian archetypes.
Different kinds of imagination, different kinds of emphasis. Movies are visual storytelling. Books require literacy to enter the mind.
Then there is the real thing, which sometimes has no articulation at all.
In a January 2023 article, the Time journalist, Jen Friedman-Rudovsky, who broke the story of the 2009 events to the wider world, tried to bring focus back to hard facts:
[H]aving spent considerable time with the women who endured the horror that’s depicted on screen, I still worry about the true story being lost, the specifics subsumed by the takeaways. Without any geographic or historical context in the film, and when the real atrocities are not regularly discussed in cast and filmmaker interviews, where does that leave Liz and Sara? What would they think of a film that depicts women going through their own real personal hell, but in a way that unmoors it from the actual events? How would they feel seeing their colony’s history represented without direct acknowledgement? I, sadly, can not ask them. I moved from Bolivia to Vietnam shortly after reporting my piece for Vice, and could not maintain contact with women in Manitoba, as they have no cell phones, internet access, or landlines, and if I were to write them letters in Spanish (which a few of them speak), they wouldn’t be able to read them.
Art/Life. Interesting and complex questions.
In conclusion, I want to highlight a moment in the film I'll never forget. Having travelled in Mennonite circles, in Ontario and western provinces, I didn’t accept the film completely as a fable. It didn't seem like an anonymous religious community. It was notably Mennonite: the talk of pacificism, the pressure to forgive, the suppression of conflict. These things are present in the modern urban Mennonites I know. They are not just in the rural, ultra conservative, foreign-based communities. On the other hand, modern Mennonite women are not illiterate. Far from it. Even Steinbach, Manitoba, may be awakening to the genius that is Miriam Toews.
But there is a moment in the film that is especially Mennonite. It's when one elder woman attempts to comfort one of the younger women in distress. She quotes a hymn I heard often in Mennonite churches. It is a joyous, high-spirited hymn, but it has never seemed more poignant that at that moment in the film. The elder women asks her friend to remember: "This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."
So, so, so hard.
ADDENDUM: Belatedly, it occurred to me that because the notes of the meeting are left with the teacher in the movie, it could mean the movie predates the book. That is, he has the notes, so he can then can publish them. This isn’t implied in the movie, but it fits the time sequence.
I guess another takeaway is, teach Mennonite girls to read, and they become Sherlock Holmes.