*CW: spiritual abuse, rape, includes spoilers about the movie adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking
Recently I had the opportunity to watch the movie Women Talking, which was nominated for two Academy Awards and took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film title is especially poignant considering it tells the story of women who lack a voice in their world.
The book upon which the movie is based is authored by Miriam Toews who grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba. Along with many here in the southeast corner of our province, Toews and I share Mennonite heritage and the story takes place against this ethnic, cultural and religious background.
Directed by Sarah Polley, the movie’s plot is inspired by the real life events of women living on a Mennonite colony in Bolivia after it was discovered that many of them had been systematically drugged and sexually assaulted. The film is gritty and grief-filled, without being too graphic.
The first thing that struck me as poignant was the stark difference in male and female gender roles illustrated as part of colony life. Being familiar with the patriarchal roots of the Mennonite colonies I came from just a few generations ago, I was not surprised. But what did surprise me was the obvious connection the fictional colony had to an establishment I have been part of for nearly my entire life.
Toews’ used the name “Molotschna Colony” for her fictional Bolivian colony, which happens to be the original name of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC). According to the University of Regina, the EMC changed its name from Molotschna Mennonite Colony (or Kleine Gemeide) in 1952 after it went through significant doctrinal reform differentiating itself from original Mennonite practices. By this time, approximately 200 Kleine Gemeide families had immigrated to North America during the 1870s as one part of a larger Mennonite migration.1
Up until three years ago, I had been part of the EMC by familial association or church attendance for my entire life. Now, as a self-proclaimed “ex-vangelical” woman, it is impossible to separate the affect of my cultural heritage from my identity and my ability to recognize the patriarchy and misogyny spilling forth from Christian religious groups into the oppressive societal conditions and governing policies women are still dealing with in 2023.
Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Frances McDormand’s character, Scarface Janz, articulates the command that billions of women have been issued since our human awareness began: “Want less.”
Two words that hold infinite pain.
Nearly at the end of the film, we finally receive a resounding protest in Jessica Buckley’s character, Mariche, who makes this plea: “We want to think.”
Indeed Mariche rightly names three things that these women want: “We want our children to be safe. We want to be steadfast in our faith. And we want to think.”
It is a dignified request undignified in its request.
It’s a horror that any human being should have to state these things. Toews has called the book/movie an “imagined response to real events”, but women have been asking for similar things for so long it boggles the mind.
Aside from the feminist impact of the film, in my opinion as a writer the film’s screenplay adaptation deserved its Oscar; I really enjoyed the philosophical dialogue among the women and how the book was so richly and loving transformed to the screen. The cast gave a masterclass in ensemble acting.
I was moved especially by the dynamic between the generations of women. The older women were able to construct and hold a container for the others to experience and express their emotion through a patient democratic process.
Claire Foy’s character, Salome, embodied the rage of the women in the colony. Many women have learned to hold in their rage about women’s issues and would find it cathartic to watch this character’s portrayal on-screen.
When the women began to sing hymns as a response to their turmoil, I was reminded starkly of a dark time in my family’s life when I needed to attend a funeral of a loved one gone too soon. Like the women on screen, here, too, we sang our pain and the hearty singing that Mennonites do so well carried the nuance of grief only sound can convey, the keening-of-old arranged in four-part harmony.
A welcome break from the dialogue-heavy script, the prayers and songs in the movie were true to the culture and were also a clever way to visually and aurally interpret Toews’ complicated relationship with her heritage. I heard her love and despair for a people finding their way out of bondage.
In fact, I heard love and despair in so much of the movie’s soundtrack and in the imagery of the movie as well, especially the scene where the women leave en masse at the end. Both sentiments fuelled the choice to leave, as Toews’ and so many other women—Mennonite or not—know all too well.
Having chosen to leave evangelical Christianity and become disconnected from my heritage, I found the packing up and leaving scene especially moving. For many minutes, I felt waves of emotion that mirrored how I had felt years ago leaving my own religious community and familial supports. I felt I had no choice. I felt I would not survive if I stayed. I felt grief, but also hope.
Amidst the societal upheaval of the last few years and the haemorrhaging of the EMC church (and the church at large in North America), I have observed a movement that hearkens to something as much as it beckons to something. The church is changing and women are leading the way.
But it’s tough to lead when you’re not even “allowed” to. Both the EMC and the Mennonite Brethren Church have been embroiled in gender-discrimination issues as agents for interdenominational change struggle to move the archaic institutions forward incrementally in an attempt to even catch up with other religious bodies. Last year, a book meant to highlight female leadership within the MB Church removed contributions from one of its writers in an act of censorship.2 And the same denomination showed us just last month that excommunication is alive and well in Manitoba.3
The resistance to the evolution of the Christian faith in the west is largely driven by those white, older and male – which is not surprising since they overwhelmingly hold the purse strings to fund the conglomerate and many times are the only ones who can vote at meetings.
Even if the harm is not exactly the same as what was faced by the on-screen women who were given a 24-hour time period to respond to the crisis of multiple counts of tranquilization and rape within their community, comparisons can be made to those of us who have lost our voices due to the overt or covert conditioning of religion. It’s the same story reverberating across culture, place and time.
Toews and Polley seem to have found their voices.
For me, this Mennonite has moved on, yet can’t resist looking back now and again. What would it take to make this a Mennonite feminist movement I wonder? I find it all captivating to watch as I continue to find my own voice outside of the church. And I’ll continue to watch and cheer every Mennonite woman on from the solid ground of my own newfound path.
3 thoughts on “A Review of Women Talking (warning: contains spoilers)”
I have been following your discussion of Women Talking with great interest. Unfortunately, the article I just received is formulated in such a way that I can’t see the very right side of the page, and so am missing parts of sentences. What I see in the title is “A Review of Women talking (warning:con
Thanks for your insightful look at “Women Talking”. Through this, I hear your voice being strong, vulnerable, and courageous in blazing a new path. You are an inspiration!
Just saw this! Thank you, Tish!