Making Women Talking: Sarah Polley explains why laughter was key to adapting Miriam Toews's novel

Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley sat down with Tom Power to discuss her latest film, Women Talking, about a multi-generational group of Mennonite women who grapple with how to respond to repeated sexual assaults from the men in their colony.

The Canadian filmmaker sat down with Tom Power to discuss her latest film

Sarah Polley in the Q studio in Toronto.
Canadian actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley in the Q studio in Toronto. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

The full conversation with Sarah Polley is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

For Sarah Polley, the "most thrilling part about adaptation" is having the opportunity to ask her literary heroes every question she's ever had about their work. As a director, she's adapted stories by acclaimed Canadian writers like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, and now, with her latest film, Women Talking, she adds award-winning novelist Miriam Toews to that list.

In an interview on Q with Tom Power, Polley said the biggest question she had for Toews is also her favourite question to ask when working on an adaptation: what's the one thing that's most deeply important to you about translating your work to the screen?

"Miriam's [answer] right away was the laughter," said Polley. "These women have to laugh, and it has to be funny…. There has to be a release, I think, for so much of what you're made to feel in this film."

WATCH | Sarah Polley's interview with Tom Power:

Women Talking follows a group of Mennonite women who debate their future after realizing they and their daughters have been regularly drugged and sexually assaulted by the men in their colony for the past two years. The story's serious premise isn't one you would think could be injected with laughter, but Polley said there's a joy that seeps into the film when the women are in communion with each other.

"The idea of having that love and that ability to laugh and that sense of connection with each other … really gave [the film] the texture," she said. "Even just to be able to ask an audience to go to this film, I think it's really important that there be space to feel many different things."

Both the book and the film avoid depicting violence against women in favour of focusing on "the way that these women have moved alongside this trauma, processed it [and] come together in community to figure out how to respond to it."

"The dwelling on the details of the assaults themselves felt both gratuitous and also really beside the point of what the film was about," the director told Power.

WATCH | Official trailer for Women Talking:

Polley said something that she thinks is getting lost in the conversation about Women Talking is how hopeful the story is.

"I think another sort of mistaken assumption about the book and the film is that it's this very heavy, devastating, difficult material," she said. "It's funny. It's joyful. It's about creating a better world…. And that's what we tried to bring into the spirit of the film."

'This is about all of us'

Toews grew up in a Mennonite family and wrote Women Talking in response to a real series of assaults that occurred in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. But in the film adaptation, Polley made the choice not to use the word "Mennonite." She said her vision of the story as a "sweeping fable, almost like an allegory" is the point where she thinks the book and the film diverge from each other.

"I think for [Toews], coming from a Mennonite community, it was much more, like, rooted in reality in some way," said Polley. "I'm not Mennonite. And me telling this story is different from Miriam telling this story in a certain respect. So for me it's more in the realm of a fable, but it was also really important to me that we be very authentic to the details of what these Mennonite communities are like."

I want it to always feel closer than you think, because actually, this is about all of us.- Sarah Polley

Polley said she also had to consider that many Mennonites practice a lifestyle removed from certain elements of modern technology and therefore can't respond to the film.

"We're talking about a community of people who cannot, by its very nature, speak back," she said. "They're not going to write an op-ed, they're not going to go give interviews, they don't interact with the world — the contemporary world — in that way. So you kind of have to measure how you're telling a story about a community that is not your own."

Polley added that one of the reasons why the film doesn't use the word Mennonite is to prevent audiences from thinking that these terrible events can only happen in cloistered communities.

"I want it to always feel closer than you think, because actually, this is about all of us," she said. "The questions this raises about what we've allowed to happen, the harm that we've enabled, systemic injustice, hierarchical power structures that allow terrible things to take place and violence against women."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Jane van Koeverden.


Vivian Rashotte is a digital producer, writer and photographer for Q with Tom Power. She's also a visual artist. You can reach her at vivian.rashotte@cbc.ca.


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