Content warning: sexual assault
One of the easiest things to lose about “Women Talking” when watching on a small screen is its sense of scale. The film, adapted by writer-director Sarah Polley from Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, tells the story of an “act of female imagination”: After the women of a Mennonite colony confirm that the men have been drugging and sexually assaulting them in their sleep, they gather in secret to determine their future.
On Jan. 30, Frances McDormand, who produced the film and plays a small role in it, visited the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) to screen and discuss “Women Talking” as part of a string of college campus appearances by the filmmakers that invite students to engage with the film’s themes.
In an interview with The Daily Californian at BAMPFA, McDormand talked about what the film accomplishes, both on- and off-screen, as well as the reasons herself, producer Dede Gardner and Polley have sought out discussions with students.
“The congregation of people in theaters isn’t happening as much as it used to and I think that the one place that dialogue and conversation is still a fuel is on university campuses,” McDormand explained. “Presumably, the majority of people here are here because they’re interested in knowledge and having their minds questioned and changed. What better place to bring the conversation that Sarah (Polley) ignites, that the movie stimulates?”
“Women Talking,” which is nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, was shot on widescreen; on the silver screen, it makes the film feel even more like an indictment of its own medium. Most of the film shows a discussion in a hayloft between a group of women who have been tasked with deciding whether the women of the colony will stay and fight, do nothing or leave and create their own colony.
Part of what makes the film unique is connected to its production: It’s almost unprecedented for a film to use an almost all-female ensemble to examine responses to systemic abuse.
During the interview, McDormand expressed ambivalence toward the awards circuit. She’s more interested in having conversations about the film outside of the industry and the box office.
“Every time someone congratulates us on being acknowledged by these systematic clubs that have been made, primarily by white men, we say, ‘Yes, but remember the omissions,’ ” McDormand said, pointing to new releases such as “The Woman King,” which was shut out of a number of categories at the Oscars.
For McDormand, the awards conversation is useful insofar as its energy (and the money invested in the film) can be diverted to discussions that include more female filmmakers.
“We lose nothing and we sacrifice nothing to include everyone, which is not a part of the male narrative,” McDormand said.
This idea has a strong parallel in “Women Talking.” Scenes marked by empathy and a spirit of collaboration proliferate in the hayloft, where the widescreen format makes for not just a sense of scale, but an emphasis on McDormand’s interest in “bring(ing) people into the circle, rather than making the circle smaller.” More often than not, the camera is interested in showing the multiple perspectives in the room as a whole. It’s a film that’s committed to understanding differences rather than constructing exclusive social relationships based on identification.
“When you are attentive to that kind of atmosphere on a set, it becomes a deep part of the DNA of the film,” McDormand said. “And I will say I believe that is because, as a female filmmaker, (Polley) was attentive to a 360 environment, rather than what was in front of her eye.”
In interviews, McDormand has used the term “matriarchal leadership” to describe the ethos she witnessed on set and in the film. Polley, as a director, was receptive to the emotions and reactions that the film’s production generated in members of the cast and crew.
In “Women Talking,” McDormand plays a small part as Scarface Janz, one of the few women in the film who decides to do nothing. She makes her decision early on; in protest to the notion of leaving the colony, she leaves the hayloft where the remaining women discuss their options. Casting McDormand in the role was a canny choice by Polley: McDormand has long been regarded for her ability to imbue a supporting role with the sense of a contoured off-screen life.
“You put Marge Gunderson together with Mildred Hayes together with Olive Kitteridge together with Fern and ‘Nomadland,’ and then you cast me as Scarface, there’s a lot of different women that show up in that one character,” McDormand noted. “That’s who I represent in the colony. I’m representing all the women who have decided not to leave — all the women who are afraid and are going to do nothing and stay there. It’s not just her voice, but it’s the voice of all those women who aren’t heard.”