‘Women Talking’: Director Sarah Polley On Forgiveness & The Guiding Principles Of Her Acclaimed New Drama

Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director, and actor Sarah Polley was tasked with writing the cinematic adaptation of the best-selling novel “Women Talking” by Miriam Toews. The book is inspired by real events involving Mennonite women and girls who are repeatedly abused by men in their religious colony. Polley spoke in a featurette about how the novel was a valuable resource. “Miriam Toews’ book had a very profound impact on me. It had such hard truths around reckoning and rage and faith and forgiveness. It was really important for me to imagine those landscapes and the canvas on which the story was going to be told. We are living in a time where there is a lot we have to change. This film offers a window into what it looks like when people have to imagine another way forward.” Sarah Polley had a reckoning herself when she released a collection of personal essays called “Run Towards The Danger.” She reflects on stories from her own life, including experiencing assault, childbirth, and stage fright.

READ MORE: ‘Women Talking’ Review: Jessie Buckley Leads A Stellar Cast In Sarah Polley’s Tense Drama [Telluride]

The actual events inspiring Towes’ book happened from 2005 to 2009, when over 100 girls and women were drugged and forcibly assaulted in the night. The physically bruised and abused women were gaslit by male members of the religious sect. The girls and women had been repeatedly told that “ghosts” and “demons” were responsible for their traumatic injuries. The movie, set in 2010, ponders the same themes of the book and is comprised of a stellar cast.

Claire Foy sets the story in motion when her character Salome Friesen attacks one of the men with a weapon. The man who was hurt admits he did something wrong and implicates other men within their colony. Police are called and the attacker along with other men are taken away. This dilemma leaves only 48 hours for some of the women to gather in a barnyard loft for a vote. The women are presented with only three options: they can remain in the colony with the intention of doing and changing nothing, they can stay and fight, or they can leave.

Salome is the voice of reason for her fellow members. “We know that we have not imagined these attacks. We know that we are bruised and terrified, drugged, infected and pregnant and some of us are dead!” She exclaims. “We know that we must protect our children. I will become a murderer if I stay.” Academy Award winner Frances McDormand who plays Scarface Janz preaches that forgiveness is their only option. The women have been taught to be pacifists their entire lives. “It is a part of our faith to forgive. We will be forced to leave the colonies if we do not forgive these men. We forfeit our place in heaven.” However, Rooney Mara’s character, Ona Friessen, who is pregnant by her attacker, believes that there should be additional options. “We cannot forgive because we are forced to,” Ona states. Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley rounds out the cast as Mariche Loewen, alongside Judith Ivy (Agata), Sheila McCarthy (Greta), Ben Wishaw (August), and additional newcomers.

Sarah Polley mentioned at the NYFF press conference that she added a line to the film while writing her adaptation: “Forgiveness can sometimes be misconstrued as permission.” She delved deeper into explaining her process and what justice looks like for these women. “I want to talk about the origin of that line. This film was a collaborative collective process from the beginning. That line came out of a very collaborative conversation where people were sharing their own experiences. It is not in the book. The apology that Greta gives to Mariche, which I think of as sort of a pivot point of the necessity of that apology to move the group forward as one. Is that person needs to be given that in order to move with the group. That’s part of the adaptation. When I wrote it, and the subject of Mariche’s domestic abuse ended up having more of a spotlight on it. There was a conversation where people were sharing their own experiences with domestic abuse, and that was a line that came up spontaneously in a conversation. Of someone realizing that forgiving their partner at the time over and over had been misconstrued. It was actually granting permission. I think forgiveness is a very nuanced, tricky, delicate thing. That we have to wield carefully because when harm is still being done, I think forgiveness can be misconstrued as permission. I think there also has to be accountability and an end to harm before forgiveness is a reasonable ask. It may be something that someone needs to come to on their own. But it is not a reasonable expectation or goal while harm is still being perpetrated.”

Sarah Polley and “Women Talking” have already earned accolades from the AFI Awards, NBR, Film Independent Spirit Awards and recognition at the Golden Globes. Polley spoke to The Playlist on the evening she was presented with a trophy at the Museum of the Moving Image Awards along with her fellow honorees Oscar winner Laura Poitras, Nobel Prize-winning “Living” screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro and “Nope” composer Michael Abels.

The Playlist: Can you talk about the process of collaborating with your actors and working on the project? I would also like to know your perspective as a mother and a wife making this film.
I loved making this film. I loved that we had producers in Dede Gardner and Frances McDormand who allowed us to create in an environment that was really conducive to people actually seeing their families most nights. Being able to not just abandon all of our caregiving duties in order to make this film. The roles in this film were really written by women. It felt like a mode of working that I would like to continue.

You are dealing with sensitive subject matter that a lot of people are talking about now with the #metoo movement. The women in this sect are dealing with themes of forgiveness and trying to flee their abusers. How do you talk about that, especially now in this climate when people are having conversations that they haven’t had before about what forgiveness, restorative justice, and compassion mean?
What I loved about Miriam Toews’ book is it really pulled back and asked some more philosophical and broader questions about what healing might look like and about what a way forward might look like. While these women have to identify the harms that have happened in their community as a necessary part of the process. They also actually have to figure out what to do next and how to move through to a place of healing and of building something new.

You were talking at the New York Film Festival during the Q&A about your experience in Hollywood as a mother and wife working and balancing, juggling between your career and the projects that you have been working on. What is your perspective on that especially dealing with the subject matter? It is a period piece, and there are a lot of things that you had to put in place to bring it to fruition.
I think it is always tricky to balance caregiving duties whatever they are, whether they are for children, grandparents, or loved ones, with being in the film industry. We did our best to try and create an environment that was more conducive to that. We had 10-hour days. We had a policy that if anyone needed to stop at any time, we did. I think that helped a lot.

What came to mind while you were directing on set during conversations you had with Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley or Claire Foy regarding the perspectives that they should have with their characters while making the film?
We had lots of discussions where we just tried to get really underneath the characters as much as we could. I think the policy was to do as much understanding and loving these characters as possible. Even if their viewpoints weren’t our own, to always try to understand them without judgment.

Claire Foy also reflected on the subject of forgiveness. “What I loved about the film is the fact there is the moment in it when Greta says we can only forgive when we leave. I think that often forgiveness is something that someone else is demanding of another person. It is very rare that the person is going,
‘I really want to forgive you.’ It is often that you’re going, ‘You have to forgive me.’ If that person has done something terrible, I think that these women understand that they can’t give forgiveness just because the men are asking for it. 

They have to give forgiveness for themselves. So they can move on with their lives and be whole and still have faith and come to terms with what has happened to them. I just loved that concept that forgiveness can’t be given if it’s asked for, basically. I don’t think. These women have to find forgiveness just for their own souls basically to be able to move on.”

It was Sarah Polley’s speech at the ceremony that shed light on the collaborative process of filmmaking and the importance of her above- and below-the-line team.

“I think sometimes as filmmakers we instinctually stay away from telling the most interesting stories about the filmmaking process. Namely that it’s a collaborative medium. That the best moments often come from creative conversations with many people bringing their best selves to the table. I think there is a fear that if we let go of this idea of the auteur, of a single author with a single artistic vision that is imposed on everyone else, people won’t give us our due. So I’ve spent a lot of my life seeing filmmakers taking credit for other people’s ideas at worst and at best ignoring the opportunities to shed a light on other people’s essential contributions of the fear of being valued less. I’m just so curious about what would happen if we embarked intentionally upon a project of sharing the beautiful collective experience of borrowing and sharing and building things together.

You’re not less of a filmmaker if you admit that while the initial idea for a shot was your idea, the cinematographer added a magic ingredient that made it what it is. You’re not less of a filmmaker if you admit an idea you initially resisted in the editing room from your editor turned out to make the film much better. You’re not less of a filmmaker if you tell a story about how your costume designer discovered something about a character that led you to write a turning point that wasn’t previously there. That’s what filmmaking is. It’s a community of people pushing ideas forward. Working side by side; arm in arm and changing the project and each other in the process. I would like to dedicate this award to the incredible crews that are often made invisible. To all those who have supported me, been in conversation with me, and helped me in the spirit of community.”

Women Talking is now playing in theaters.

– Sarah Polley photography by Shani Harris.