Women Talking: Sarah Polley Brings ‘Fierce Feminist’ Feelings to Screen

At her silver medallion tribute, which was presented by Frances McDormand and attended by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley, Polley says making the movie has made her consider a return to acting: “Maybe, one day.”

 

When Sarah Polley was in her 20s, just starting to direct short films, she got lots of advice from female directors she had worked with as an actor, like Kathryn Bigelow, Audrey Wells and Isabel Coixet.

“These women grabbed onto me and said, ‘You’re doing it, and here’s how fierce you’re going to have to be,’” Polley said, speaking at her Telluride Film Festival silver medallion tribute Friday night, ahead of the screenings of her new film, accurately and poignantly titled, Women Talking.

“Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first female to win the Best Director and Best Picture Oscar in 2009, told her bluntly: “You have to be like a dog with a bone, and everyone’s going to try to take it away from you.’”

The movie is based on the 2018 novel of the same title by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which was inspired by a real 2011 event.

For her picture, Polley has cast an impressive ensemble that includes Oscar nominees Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Jessie Buckly (The Lost Daughter), and Emmy Award winner Claire Foy (The Crown), cast as women in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony.

Jointly, the community’s femmes hold secret meetings on order to decide how to respond to being drugged and raped by some of the men in their sect. Their daylong deliberations in a hayloft is by turns angry, poignant and even funny.  Despite the setting, the discussions feel as modern and thoughtful as any conversations about sexual violence, sexual harassment, and gender identity in general that the #MeToo movement has sparked over the past few years.

Telluride Film Festival

At Polley’s Telluride tribute, three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who produced the film with Dede Gardner and plays a small role, presented the writer-director with her medallion.

McDormand playfully simulated someone conferring a knighthood and was joined onstage by nine members of the overwhelmingly female cast, including Mara, Foy, Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, August Winter, Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil.

Polley, who first appeared on screen at the age four and first got attention in the U.S. for her work in high-profile movies films like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter and the indie Go, hasn’t acted since 2010.

Has she missed acting?

“As a child actor, it wasn’t a great experience and, in some cases, quite traumatic,” said Polley, who wrote about her frightening experiences on the set of Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in her 2022 book of essays, Run Toward the Danger.

Once she started to direct, making films like 2006’s Oscar nominated Away From Her with Julie Christie as a woman in mental decline, “speaking with actors took the longest to figure out. I had such self-consciousness.”

In the opening moments of Women Talking, a title card appears that reads, “What follows is an act of female imagination.”

The line is an assertion of purpose by its two female storytellers, Polley and Toews, and a reclamation of the phrase.  But perhaps more significantly, it is used to indoctrinate and gaslight the women in the colony into thinking their sexual assaults were actually visits from demons. The “treatment” happened while the women were drugged with livestock tranquilizer!

The movie includes moments of intergenerational debate among the women about how to respond to the attacks–in other words, whether to leave the colony or fight back. “Want less,” one older woman says, by way of advice, to a younger woman.

The women also wonder how to protect their children, male and female, from the culture that their attackers have forced upon them.

“The questions this book raised lived with me for a long time,” Polley said, describing the conversations she had shared with Gardner and McDormand as the movie took shape. As the title suggests, Women Talking, she said, “Began with three women talking a lot. Fruitful, rich, challenging, beautiful conversations that shifted who I was and how I was living my life.”