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Women Talking: What To Know About This Year’s Best-Awarded Screenplay

Miriam Toews, image courtesy of Amazon

Warning: This article mentions triggering events such as sexual assault. Readers should heed caution before proceeding.

Many culminate the end of awards season with The Oscars. One of the night’s biggest winners was “Women Talking,” an American drama film written and directed by Sarah Polley. The film’s plot was adapted from the titular book, “Women Talking” by Miriam Toews, which chronicles the events of the gas-facilitated rapes that occurred in the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia. The film stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Frances McDormand.

Women Talking Summary: Based on True Events

The Manitoba Colony is a highly conservative Mennonite community in some parts of Bolivia. Many of the group’s members are of European descent. They abstain from modern practices to preserve their traditions by dressing conservatively and disengaging from hedonistic pleasures like drinking and gambling.

The book starts with an author’s note explaining that her works are a “reaction through fiction” based on real-life events. This event occurred from 2005–2009 when many women and girls discovered that they had been raped. The perpetrators were all men in the colony except for one where they used animal anesthetic to sedate these women before their assault. After the effects wore off, the victims would wake up with headaches, traces of semen, and without underwear.

Due to the colony’s ultraconservative nature, many women stayed silent. While a few reported waking up with bruises and were bloodied, their concerns were immediately dismissed as “female imagination.” Others have even attributed these attacks to ghosts, demons, or God’s punishment for their sins.

Eventually, these men were caught in the act. However, due to the severe and complex nature of the case, the colony elders decided to welcome local police into the vicinity and take the perpetrators into custody.

In 2011, these eight men stood on trial. Seven of the attackers were sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. At the same time, the veterinarian who supplied the sedates in spray form was given a twelve-year sentence.

Women Talking: A Life-changing Book

Miriam Toews’ best-selling novel based on actual events quickly became an instant hit among critics. Margaret Atwood, a successful author who needs no further introduction, describes the events that “could be right out of The Handmaid’s Tale.” on her Twitter page.

The book’s narrative focuses on the aftermath of these traumatic events. Eight men believed to have committed these attacks were captured and locked in a shed. One was accidentally killed after being confronted by angry colonists. At the same time, another was attacked with a Scythe by Salome, one of the rape victims.

Peters, who serves as the bishop of the colony in Molotschna, calls the police to arrest the perpetrators for their protection. Following these events, the men have gone to the city to post bail so the suspects can await trial from home.

During this period, the women were allowed to forgive the men as a guarantee of their place in heaven. Bishop Peters insists that any woman who doesn’t forgive the attackers will be excommunicated.

As the men are away, all the women hold a referendum. During these discussions, three options are available:

  • Forgive the men and do nothing.
  • Stay in the colony but fight.
  • Leave the colony altogether.

During the count, readers learn that there is an equal number between ‘stay and fight’ and ‘leave.’

Eight women from two families are assigned to break the tie. However, because they cannot read or write, they enlist the help of August Epp, the colony’s male school teacher who had just recently returned after a period of ex-communication. As he transcribes the women’s discussions, he also reflects on his backstory, his parents’ ex-communication, and his struggles with depression.

The women decide to leave the colony, including any boys under 15. However, this was challenging as it would mean further punishment from the men. After securing the horses and ensuring the guards are taken care of, the women leave. Still, Epp stays as he ponders on the women’s absence, his life, and the ultimate kindness these women had bestowed him before they left.

Women Talking: An Essential Film That Keeps You Talking

The film doesn’t hold back on its depiction of trauma and the realities of rape victims being dismissed. Furthermore, the movie depicts women’s lack of equality in a colony where supposedly religious virtues are a means to silence and subdue its victims. While the film could easily become a typical Hollywood drama that becomes an online political talking point between influencers, Polley balances the drama with nuance and sensitivity.

Overall, there is no doubt “Women Talking” has earned its award for best-adapted screenplay. If you ever decide to read the book or watch the film, you can’t lose. Either way, it certainly will get you talking regardless of whether you’re a woman or not.


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