Room for Possibility: On Women Talking’s Striking Emptiness

Room for Possibility: On Women Talking’s Striking Emptiness

Moments of transition, pause, stillness and thought make room for hope in Sarah Polley’s tremendous Women Talking. Tia Glista finds that although they might be easy to overlook, they remain full of promise in their consideration of a better future.

Halfway into Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, a quick cutaway shows the inside of an empty Mennonite church. Though fleeting, the shot provoked something in me. I want you to notice and grasp it when you see the film. Look at the daylight — pay attention to its angle, how it lilts, sidling in through the tall windows when no one is at prayer. The pews are empty, abrasively still, somehow more angular and stark without bodies to contain. The walls and floor, painted white, are blanched by the sun, and no one else is there to see how the beams illuminate the entire room. 

The last time we saw this space, it was at the beginning of the film, and it was filled with bodies that blocked the sun’s reach from fanning out across the floor. The pews were stuffed with devout men, dressed almost identically in checkered shirts and suspender-ed pants, huddled on their knees, clasping their calloused hands in prayer. Their shoulders touched as they crowded the frame, almost edge to edge, forming a single, solid shadow. There was, notably, no room for women in this picture. Let alone room to breathe.   

Women Talking is a parable of feminist worldmaking in the aftermath of terrible violence, drawing its catalysing event from the true story of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia where, for years, women and girls were tranquilized and raped in their sleep by a group of local men. Toews, a Canadian-Mennonite writer, imagines in her 2018 novel of the same name what might have happened if the women had been afforded the opportunity to gather, to bond together and plot a future for themselves and for their children that would not only allow them to get out from under violence’s crushing weight, but to create a new community that would not breed such terror and abuse in the first place.

Toews has an incredible knack for envisioning this set of ethical and political ideals in an oblique style — through anecdotes about animals or diversions into the etymological origins of given words, she shows how the women are moved to see the world anew by presenting it differently as well. While much of this cunning subtlety is lost to the screen, the moments that are less obvious, unsuspecting, and even likely to be overlooked in Polley’s Women Talking grip and move its audience. 

It is, for instance, in flickers of emptiness when the film feels most full. It is in spaces — whether literal rooms or gaps in action or speech — where nothing and no one has yet taken hold. It is called Women Talking, but I care about when the women are quiet. I care about the in-betweens, the departure from what is known towards what is not, the reaching towards the new, towards what is not yet named but supercharged with possibility, and so may not yet be legibly ‘useful’ or ‘productive.’

The women who gather to debate their futures come from two families, the Friesens and the Loewens. Ona Friesen, the young dreamer of the group, enlists local schoolteacher August Epp to take the minutes of their discussion, and as he does so, the two of them also take moments to ask questions and share facts that fall beyond their primary subject matter — according to some, like Ona’s sister Salome, it would probably seem that they are talking about nothing. Seeing August’s writing, Ona asks him what the short lines between some words are — “commas,” he explains, adding that they indicate a short breath or a pause in the text. He tells her that there is a butterfly named after them, and she grins. 

If breathing and pausing are the function of the comma, then Women Talking is punctuated by commas, by essential moments of quiet contemplation and readjustment that indicate the space and time of transition, and that mark out this movement as important. The pause makes room for thought, deliberation, and unlearning, rather than rushing to snap conclusions. As Ona argues, “When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.” The undefined or empty makes room for new answers, new ways of being in the world that are still without shape or precedent. Much like the empty church, without bodies already occupying and ruling the space, there is room for an untutored beam of light to dance.

Polley has spoken about how part of the women’s struggle derives from the lack of language available to describe what they have experienced, creating an inability to connect their individual feelings to the structural conditions of their community that have enabled such terrible violence. But when the women aren’t speaking out loud, they convey meaning and action with their bodies. The youngest of the group, teenaged Autje and Neitje, seldom add their opinions to the conversation, but their habit of watching and quietly braiding their hair together still speaks volumes. Their gestural and postural habits foreground mutuality and interdependence in ways that enable a complimentary political ethos to later emerge. The women’s bodies — their breath, their gazes, their gestures — articulate that for which their minds do not yet have language. Gestures, which we often refer to as empty, in fact manifest a life still germinating in the improvisational vocabularies of hope, love, and care. Having no language can be frightening, but it may also mean that there is no script, no set of instructions, and no limit to what one might say upon arriving at the right words.

Backgrounding their conversation is a landscape that I know well — the beige fields of rural Ontario, seen through the frame of a hay door that acts as a window onto an immense horizon, one that bleeds from arid in the day to freckled by myriad stars when night falls. When I see this view through Polley’s camera, I think of the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed and her book Queer Phenomenology, in which she writes about our orientation to the world and how our social positioning determines the horizon of what we believe to be possible. Ahmed writes that challenging normativity involves cultivating “the hope of new directions” that alter “‘what appears” within the horizon of the body and what becomes “reachable.”

Indeed, the horizon — which has long been a cinematic signifier for the infinite and undetermined — becomes a touchstone for the matriarch Greta Loewen, who explains that when she drives her team of horses (Ruth and Cheryl!), she must look towards the distant future, toward the furthest end of the path that she cannot yet fully see, in order to steer them more directly and confidently. To look only at what is immediate, available, and known is to react too quickly, to misstep, and be caught unprepared for what is coming, but it is also to be confined in one’s range of potential responses. The unknown, again, the space where we are not (yet), is a lifeline and not a threat, or at least, as Ona says, it is better to have “hope for the unknown than hatred of the familiar.” What is possible stretches past the colony towards the boundless horizon — likewise, the women remark that they have no map of what lies beyond their gazes, but perhaps, they can make one as they go.

In a saturated economy of films that claim to respond to real-life events, to represent feminist struggles in the context of #MeToo or gender justice, Women Talking is one of the few that actually considers the future and asks: when today is over, what will tomorrow look like? We do not have to accept the predetermined answer. We can create something, piece by piece, anew.

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