Women Talking – The Agency of Imagination

Women Talking – The Agency of Imagination

David R. Weiss – February 11, 2023

Women Talking, the film by Sarah Polley adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same title, may be the most relevant movie you can watch this year.

Poster design by BLT Communications, LLC

NOTE: My reflections contain no spoilers beyond what you might easily surmise from the tailer. The film’s power is carried less by any plot twists than by the force of its deeply authentic performances that simply—and searingly—portray “women talking.”

Toews’ novel is inspired by true events that happened in an ultra-conservative Mennonite community in Bolivia between 2004 and 2009, where, it was revealed, well over a hundred women and girls were sexually assaulted by a group of men who were members of the same community. The men would covertly spray an airborne cattle tranquilizer into a home through open windows, rendering all the home’s occupants incapacitated and allowing intruders to do as they wished. Even if a victim came partially conscious during an attack, they found themselves unable to move or make sound and they slid back into unconsciousness.

In the morning they awoke, often bloodied and bruised, and filled with shame at mere fragments of recollection. Overwhelmingly reluctant to say anything because of the patriarchal and sexually repressed structure of the community, when some women did come forward, the men in the community dismissed their complaints as dreams, or worse, evidence of demons. Finally, in 2009, one women caught two men trying to enter her neighbor’s house, and the extent of the horror was revealed. Ultimately, eight men were identified as the rapists, one other man with supplying the tranquilizer. All were Mennonite; all but one were members of the same Mennonite colony as their victims. In total, 151 female victims, ranging in age from 5 to 65, came forward, although the actual number was no doubt higher—and appears to have included some men and boys, as well.

All nine men received prison sentences (although one escaped), and the horrific reality is that even years later women insisted that instances of “rape by spray” continued in the community. Less common on account of increased household security and greater care taken by the perpetrators, but many in the community acknowledge both rumors and their acceptance that the rumors harbor truth.

Altogether about 50,000 Mennonites live in 90 Mennonite colonies in Bolivia, playing an important agricultural role in the economy. Most are insular—often intentionally isolated, having negotiated large measures of political autonomy to safeguard their religious beliefs and cultural traditions. Not all of them are ultra-conservative, but in those that are, girls receive little schooling and typically only speak Low German, ensuring they cannot communicate with anyone outside the colony. These factors, combined with entrenched patriarchy and sexual repression, creates a perfect storm for unabated sexual violence. That’s the hard reality.

Both Toews’ novel and Polley’s film dare to imagine something different. Indeed, the film opens with the simple declaration, “What follows is an act of female imagination.” The meaning is triple. First, it counters the original dismissals of the women’s claims by the male leaders as coming from their “wild imaginations.” Second, it redresses the damning history in which the women achieved only very limited justice, by imagining a more far-reaching transformation of their future, by authoring for them an agency not yet accessible to them. And third, it invites us into the richly textured conversations between them by which their agency is unfurled.

Without recounting the plot of the film—all of which plays out over about 48 hours—or the flashbacks that fill in some pieces of the story, suffice to say that Toews and Polley are intent on setting these women free. But there are no superheroes coming to the rescue. There are simply “women talking”: that is, women speaking the truth and terror of their lives to one another. Women arguing their deepest convictions alongside their starkest fears. Women debating each other with their entire world at stake. But doing so less as adversaries (though at times, yes) than as persons wholly new to the notion of agency. As persons still testing their emerging power, both individually and collectively.

The miracle of the movie is what transpires as the women talk. It is “miracle” because it did not happen in the actual history. And it is “miracle,” because nothing less than stepping beyond history can truly open a future to them.

Or us. And therein lies the film’s relevance.

The women ultimately come to acknowledge the extent to which violence has shaped virtually every facet of their communal life. The forces and structures that undergird their suffering have taught assumptions, expectations, and behaviors to everyone in the community, such that victim, perpetrator, and enabler become blurred labels. And there is no neat path of exit. There is only the hard-won certainty that the status quo can no longer be left in place.

Whatever comes next is unknown—for the women, virtually unthinkable. Their lives up to this point have given them a world bounded by what is. The very act of imagination is less about what might be—nothing has prepared them to dream about that—than about the daring decision to leave what is behind.

And there we are. Too.

Our lives—if we dare be honest—are no less framed entirely by violence than theirs. No less. Our assumptions, expectations, and behavior no less structured by violence against one another, against the planet, against ourselves. To even imagine a world beyond oil, beyond police and prisons, beyond individualism, beyond accumulative wealth, beyond an extractive economy, beyond bias and abuse, beyond guns, beyond what is … is virtually unthinkable. Nothing has equipped us to consider a wholly other path forward.

There is no future—no livable future—accessible by merely tweaking and reforming the present. None. Indeed, to call our prospects grim, is naïve optimism. Our situation, like that of the women in the film, is cause for abject despair. Unless—

Unless by some miracle we choose to conjure up collectively—out of the thin air between us—the agency to forsake what is for what is as yet unthinkable. Unless we choose to leave the world we know, for a world we can’t yet even imagine. Except, perhaps, when we finally accept that the world as it is, can no longer be allowed to be. At any cost. The imagination we need in this moment may not be found until we turn from what is without knowing what’s next.

Women Talking manages to imagine the impossible. We need to do nothing less. I’d say we better start talking. Now.

On the history behind the film see:

“The rapes haunting a community that shuns the 21st Century,” May 16, 2019; www.bbc.com/news/stories-48265703. “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia,” December 22, 2013;www.vice.com/en/article/4w7gqj/the-ghost-rapes-of-bolivia-000300-v20n8. “A Verdict in Bolivia’s Shocking Case of the Mennonite Rapes,” August 17, 2011;https://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2087711,00.html



David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

2 thoughts on “Women Talking – The Agency of Imagination

  1. DavidHorrifying account. The Chaco is an area bordered by Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina “founded” by and inhabited by Mennonites.  It constitutes about “60% of Paraguay’s land mass” and only 10% of the population. Mennonites settled in the Chaco and successfully developed an agricultural economy including cattle ranching and of course conversion.  Twenty plus years ago of  the Paraguayan population there over 10, 000 were Mennonites. I don’t know how many indigenous conversions.   On our trips to Paraguay we didn’t have time to visit the Chaco. Recently I met a Paraguayan violinist performing in Bemidji residing in the north country – teaching at BSU also director of the Grand Rapids symphony – from the Chaco – it is a sparsely populated somewhat desolate area.  Given the organized assaults

    • Thanks for commenting, Mary Ann. Agree: so horrifying. In some ways, thankfully, the film follows the women’s response rather than the events themselves. The news stories are almost beyond belief. That this could happen in a devout, pacifist community?! But it did.
      It appears your comment got cut off as it ends mid-sentence. Feel free to come back and complete it if you wish!

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