Theological ponderings from William Loewen

Women Talking: A Review

If a Hollywood studio executive had asked me as a student of Mennonite culture, history and theology, which of our stories should be told on the silver screen, I would have offered a long list. “We” have many beautiful stories with compelling characters that ask and speak to important questions. If they had asked, instead, which story should not be told, it would be the ghost rapes of Bolivia. So, naturally, that’s not only the one that gets a movie made, but because of the quality of the job that was done and the slew of awards it has won and been nominated for, the story is elevated to the global stage. I went to see the movie recently.

Who should watch this movie (or read the book)?
Not everyone. Curiosity about a Mennonite story isn’t reason enough. The story mostly involves conversations in and around the barn, but there are traumatic flashback scenes that can easily trigger viewers with sensitive emotional dispositions or anyone carrying trauma from sexual violence, toxic patriarchy, or high control religious communities.

I’ve had the book by Canadian author Miriam Toews on my shelf for a long time but couldn’t motivate myself to read it. The last book of hers that I had read was “All My Puny Sorrows,” a novel following a pair of sisters and their mother through the journey of mental health and suicide. Toews is masterful at telling heavy stories in a way that is honest but sensitive, but still not everyone can handle reading (and now watching) her work.

What exactly is the story?
Between 2005 and 2009, in conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia, a group of men sexually assaulted multiple women and girls in their community. They would climb in the windows while people slept, sedate their victims and other household members who might wake up and discover the attack. The women would wake up with physical and emotional evidence of an attack, but not enough to convince anyone in power of what had happened. Before a group of men were arrested, the attacks were blamed on ghosts, the devil, or written off as wild female imagination.

The movie and the book both begin with a disclaimer that “Women Talking” is fiction, an act of female imagination, but unfortunately, that disclaimer is easiy forgotten.

“Women Talking” tells the story of what could have happened if the men remaining in the colony had gone to town to bail the accused men out of jail, and the women had gathered to vote on what to do while the men were away. Three images are drawn so that the illiterate women know where to indicate their choice to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. There is a particularly poignant scene in the voting montage where an older woman votes to do nothing and then dismissively tosses her pencil aside. All three options represent a an emotional response, and each one is richly demonstrated in the film.

Who am I to review this movie?
My parents were both born into similar colonies in Mexico, living in geographic, social, and religious isolation from the rest of the world. Most of the people I grew up with shared a similar background. I’m a Christian pastor who speaks the same language, eats many of the same foods, and has distant blood relatives living in colonies like the one depicted in the film. But, I am also a man, so cultural affinity and a theological disposition towards the oppressed cannot fill in all the gaps of understanding between me and the victims in this story, so I write cautiously.

I am like August, the narrator of the book and note taker in the meeting. I carry too many hallmarks of the outside world (ie. university education, reliance on technology, comparatively liberal theology, etc) to ever be trusted by the men, but still too impossibly far away to adequately identify with these victims.

Is it a fair depiction of Mennonites?
When real life events paint an ugly picture of a community, any artistitic depictions that follow matter infinitely less than the actual events. Sometimes communities lose the right to be fairly depicted. This is one of those times. Also, comments made by the writer of the book and the director of the movie make clear that this is primarily a women’s story, not a Mennonite one, so the accuracy should be judged accordingly.

That being said, they get a lot right. The layout of the community, the vehicles, the hair, and the clothing were spot on. The names didn’t seem exactly right, but just about every traditional Mennonite community I’ve ever visited had members with nicknames that needed to be explained (ie. Iceman, Hoppy, Yellow transmission,etc), so I’m happy to write off this apparent inconsistency.

The characters’ hair, dresses, and make-up (or lack thereof) were accurate. Their emotional expressions of anger, judgment, derision, and quiet piety, and even the capacity to laugh at seemingly inappropriate times were spot on. The actresses all looked like the women of my childhood but they didn’t sound like them. Low German is a barnyard language well-suited for angry tirades requiring colourful, euphemistic imagery. The language used by the characters sounded structured, civilized, even educated in contrast. On top of that, these women spoke to each other with grace and tenderness (with a few notable exceptions) in ways that I rarely saw as a child. Maybe that was the point. Maybe we’re supposed to conclude that removed from the interference and expectations of the men, these women in particular and women in general are capable of new ways of communicating with each other. Maybe we’re supposed to think that the exceptional circumstances brought these women to new levels of patience and tolerance. Whether or not that was intended, whether or not I agree, that is the moral of the story that I am taking from it.

Spoilers ahead
A powerful image in the film for me was the convoy of wagons preparing to leave. It has often been said that the story of my people is a story of people on the move. My ancestors moved from Holland to Poland in search of religious tolerance, then to Ukraine to avoid conscription, then to Canada, then Mexico, then back to Canada. Similar groups have taken similar journeys and ended up in Belize, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, etc. But those stories often begin with the caravan arriving somewhere. The image of a fleeing convoy tied in with every one of those stories, and it was made even more powerful with the accompanying narration of the story to the next generation of the community.

Given what I said before, I recommend the movie to anyone willing to hear a difficult story and grapple with difficult questions. If it was up to me, I would have made various different choices, and probably still decided not to tell the story at all. Ultimately though, it engaged my heart and mind, while building on the imagery and stories of my people and I enjoyed the movie.


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