That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

Women Talking (feat. editor Christopher Donaldson)

Monday, March 6th, 2023 12:28 pm—Film

Women Talking (USA 2022, Drama), Writer/Director: Sarah Polley

When editor Christopher Donaldson graciously agreed to chat with me about his work on Women Talking, I revisited the post I’d written about Take This Waltz, which he also edited for writer/director Sarah Polley. The entry ends with these words: “Polley has a smart, daring voice that gets stronger with every project. It should be heard.”

It strikes me that her following two projects (after the outstanding Stories We Tell), both released in 2022, not only amplify her voice, but serve to give voice to so many others. With Women Talking, the film she wrote and directed based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, Polley expertly adapts the story of the women and girls who were repeatedly drugged and raped by the men in their colony, and are looking for a way forward. With her brilliant book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, Polley presents a deeply personal collection of autobiographical essays on trauma and recovery, which draw from her unique life experiences to illuminate far-ranging paths to healing.

It’s hard for me to separate the projects, her book from this film. The topics she explores in Run Towards the Danger—how we remember and interpret the past, and how we let it guide us, now and into the future; the struggle to believe our own stories and memories, without external validation; why women so often stay silent after abuse—are at the core of Women Talking. Not only that, but Polley seems to bring so much of herself and her personal beliefs to this achingly universal tale, in what she chooses to emphasize: the importance of democracy and collective action, and of respectful discourse, even (perhaps especially) among people with differing opinions; the need to examine both systemic issues and individual culpability; the ways in which men, as well as women, are victims of patriarchy, and in which women, as well as men, perpetuate the system; and how gender roles and identities fit into all of that.

Women Talking is inspired by recent events that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For years, the women and girls were knocked unconscious with an animal anesthetic before being assaulted. When they awoke, displaced in a fog of confusion and pain, they were told that the attacks were the work of ghosts, demons or “wild female imagination.” In 2011, eight men were finally found guilty of the rapes and sentenced to long prison terms. But the attacks continued; in the absence of those eight perpetrators, other men took their place. In Bolivia, the women didn’t leave—nor, as far as we know, did they meet to talk about it.

Toews’ richly layered novel is, in her words, “a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.” The film starts off with a similar statement: that what follows is an act of female imagination. Like the book, the film focuses on lengthy discussions among several women from the colony as they meet in a hayloft to determine whether they can forgive the men, as their faith dictates, and to decide, in the day or two they have while the men are in town posting bail for the attackers, whether to stay and fight, or to leave. But also, the women finally talk about what happened: how they feel about it, and what they need in order to begin processing it. (As one of the characters says in the book, “There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” That simple; that complex.)

Polley takes the adaptation further from the real-life incidents and into the realm of fable, choosing not to name the women as Mennonite—although costumes and setting clearly place it in a community away from the mainstream, the modern—and filming the story in a muted colour palette that feels both timeless and out of time. All of that helps underscore the fact that this film gives voice to something that has been building for years—for millennia. If the assaults against women and girls were “all waiting to happen, before it happened,” as the narrator tells us, so too was this story, this film always waiting to be created, as part of an ongoing movement toward rebuilding and rebalancing. (I’m reminded of Tori Amos’ song ‘Bells for Her’: Can’t stop what’s coming, can’t stop what is on its way...)

We need Women Talking. As Chris says, it has “the potential to really move people and change minds and initiate discussions and initiate change.”

Last April, when we emailed about the film, he said it was “very different” and one of the best things he’d worked on: “We’re just mixing it now and it feels very, very special.” He’s not alone in that opinion; among many other accolades, Women Talking is nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Chris attributes part of its success to Polley’s commitment to ensuring that filmmaking “be an enriching human experience.” On Women Talking, she hired an on-set therapist for anyone who needed to talk. She also arranged reasonable working hours so the cast and crew could see their families in the evenings. “The environment of care and love that Sarah fosters is what ends up onscreen. I think that’s part of the reason that people respond to the film as emotionally as they do.”

Two months after hearing from Chris, I got to hear Sarah Polley speak about her book at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. At the signing, we briefly chatted about Chris and Women Talking. With great enthusiasm, she said something to the effect that he had saved the movie by changing the narrator to a 16-year-old-girl. (Toews’ book is narrated by a man, August Epp, who takes the meeting minutes in the hayloft because girls in the colony aren’t taught to read or write—but also, for the boys and men to take note; to learn, and unlearn.)

Chris shied away from that exuberant praise when I passed it along, saying instead that “Sarah is an extraordinarily generous collaborator” and that the final cut is a result of them finding their way together, with input from others, including producers Dede Gardner (12 Years a Slave, Moonlight) and Frances McDormand (Nomadland, The Tragedy of Macbeth). He came on board partway through the edit, once he’d completed work on David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Editor Roslyn Kalloo worked with Polley on the initial cuts of the film, and when Chris became available, “there was this idea that I could come in as fresh eyes… as the last piece of the puzzle,” he says. “All involved felt like they needed fresh perspective on where (the film was at).” That includes the studio: “The cliché that you get about studios is that they’re always fighting you, but certainly with MGM we did not have that experience at all. They were so supportive of all the creative work we were doing.”

Chris had been the main editor for the first four seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale; committing to Women Talking meant leaving that gig behind. “It was a very difficult choice (because) I loved working on Handmaid’s, loved the team, felt like I was abandoning them,” he says. (He didn’t need to worry about the abandonment part; everyone on the hit show supported his decision, including its star, executive producer and frequent director, Elisabeth Moss. “Lizzie was doing ADR [automated dialogue replacement] in the same facility where Sarah and I were cutting, so she came by to meet Sarah and say hi to me, and she was so incredibly understanding and generous.”)

But he was also keen to work with Polley again, and on this project in particular. The opportunity, as a man, to play a key creative role on such a groundbreaking film was something he took to heart. “Part of the story is about allyship and what men can do, so it was important (to Sarah) to have a mixed crew. I felt extraordinarily grateful and privileged to be there… My basic feeling in all creative endeavours as an editor is to really listen—to the footage, to the people all around you, to your own brain. It’s a lot of thinking and listening, and then actualizing. But in this instance, it was especially important for me to be listening.”

With that mindset, Chris first watched the cut Polley and Kalloo had worked on, leaving himself open to whatever inspiration spoke to him. He was struck with two main impulses: that the narrator should be changed from August (Ben Whishaw) to Autje (Kate Hallett), the youngest person in the hayloft; and that the film should open with a brief flashback of Ona (Rooney Mara) waking up from one of the attacks—a moment that initially played as part of a longer flashback much later in the film. “When I first talked to Sarah, I said, ‘That’s the opening of the movie,’” says Chris. “‘I don’t know why, but that’s the opening of the movie.’”

It works perfectly as the opening, establishing the context of ancient violence, but also immediately allowing the viewer to wake up with Ona—who becomes pregnant as a result of the rape. When she sits up in bed and says “Again,” it feels implicit in her delivery, and in the scene’s place at the start of the film, that the echo ringing out from those words is this: “No more.”

Moving that moment to the start also allows for the early introduction of a key component of the film’s score, or soundscape. Hildur Guðnadóttir, the wondrous, Academy Award-winning composer (Joker, Tár), added the sound of bells chiming during the flashbacks of women awaking from the assaults. “They’re so unbelievable, so extraordinary,” says Chris, who calls Guðnadóttir a musical genius. “Hildur described the bells as being like doomsday and a call to prayer, both, and so when Sarah was rewriting the narration, that line made its way into the movie itself.” (And I see it coming, and it’s on its way…)

He points to that as an excellent illustration of what it’s like to work with Polley—her emphasis on total collaboration, on welcoming ideas laterally from everyone working on the production. “Sarah’s brilliant at pulling the most incredible work out of her collaborators… That brilliant line of Hildur’s, doomsday and a call to prayer, I don’t think anybody was going to articulate it better than that, that spiritual idea.”

It’s an enchanting line, one of many in the lyrical voiceover Polley wrote for Autje. After Chris suggested her character as narrator, a pitch he calls “purely instinctual,” he learned that Polley and the producers had already considered changing the narrator, possibly to Ona. Polley took Chris’ idea to Gardner, and then decided that Autje’s voiceover should be addressed to Ona’s unborn child.

Having August narrate the book makes perfect sense; he is, after all, documenting the events on behalf of the women. But with film, hearing a male voice speaking over the women had a different effect. “There was something about the character of August as the narrator that changed the perspective whenever we cut to August,” says Chris. “(By instead using) a teenage girl who is on the periphery for most of the conversation, it was my instinct that Autje could maintain the same outsider point of view that August had, yet be able to address the audience in the first person, which was really essential in terms of illuminating or guiding the audience through the story itself.” The switch also places the narrator in the future; rather than telling the story as it unfolds, she re-tells it from a place of strength and survival, a place inherently more hopeful.

“Ben Whishaw’s reading of the voiceover was extraordinary,” says Chris. “There are moments in the film where I can still hear his original voiceover in my head, and it was incredibly moving. But the hardest part of many creative endeavours is realizing when something that is really good isn’t actually working for you.”

With that decision made, Chris and Polley set about re-envisioning the film, a process he calls “sheer joy.” In search of Autje’s voice, Polley wrote a stream of consciousness. “We used certain amounts of the original voiceover as expositional architecture, but we ended up looking at this document that Sarah had written, and pulling out the most important ideas. Then, it was a matter of finding (the narration’s place in the film) and how to represent it visually.”

They incorporated as many single shots of Autje as they could, and reframed scenes so they would be more aligned with her perspective. They also played around with chronology, moving reactions, lines and even scenes from one part of the film to another. (The film’s final shot was pulled from an earlier sequence of images that accompany August’s list of all that is good in the world. It feels fated that the image was available, creating a poetic symmetry with the opening shot; in Chris’ words, “the perfect ending of the story we just told.”)

Hours of footage shot by multiple cameras offered great flexibility. So did the calibre of the cast. “You’re dealing with actors who are all extraordinary performers, and so therefore everything they did had a level of variation that made it slightly new, and yet none of it was bad,” says Chris, who credits Polley and Kalloo with building the performances to where they are now, in terms of take selection.

The film is a marvel of beautiful performances. In addition to Whishaw, Hallett and Mara, the stellar cast includes Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Liv McNeil, Frances McDormand, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, August Winter and Emily Mitchell. Of course, there are countless exquisite moments from the leads, a group that features some of the best talent working today; Chris recounts the artistic agony of having to cut “extraordinary performance moments” from Buckley, Foy and Mara, in service of the overall picture. (Polley, he says, described Mara’s Ona as “the performance I dreamed of for this character.”) And Hallett is deservedly being lauded for her breakout work as Autje. But Women Talking is filled with incredible work from across the ensemble. To give just one example, as Scarface Janz’s (McDormand) daughter Anna, Guloien’s role, while pivotal, is brief and wordless, yet she conveys a world of emotions through her facial expressions and physicality—and the one, restrained sound she utters is devastating. The supporting performances ring like Guðnadóttir’s bells, with their spare power; they may strike less often, but when they do, they resonate.

Those bells, says Chris, were “completely influential” in setting the tone for a more impressionistic approach to the flashbacks. In the script, they played out as full scenes, before cutting back to the women in the loft. Adding the bells suggested the possibility of a more abstract treatment that featured “glimpses of a shot rather than the whole scene” and was emotionally additive rather than expositive. As a result, the film wound up being around 40 minutes shorter than the first cut Chris saw. “We were looking for opportunities to convey an idea with simply a look, a reaction, to distill (each moment) down to its essence… In some instances, we included (flashbacks) in a much sharper fashion, but where they were scripted. In others, we revisited them where they weren’t necessarily scripted.”

Chris calls out a sequence early in the film, when Autje climbs down from the rafters, where she’d been observing the women talking. In voiceover, she says that “many of us saw ourselves from above” in the aftermath of the assaults. After, they never spoke of it:

 “Where I come from, where your mother comes from, we didn’t talk about our bodies. So, when something like this happened, there was no language for it. Without language for it, there was a gaping silence. And in that gaping silence was the real horror.”

Says Chris, “We knew that that idea was absolutely critical, and so we restructured material (around that).” They pulled from shots of empty kitchens in the colony, originally at the end of the film. “When August was the narrator, and the women left, we had a moment of looking at all the empty kitchens, and then the film ended on August just about to teach the boys—essentially his first inhale and about to speak.” Chris couldn’t ignore the evocative pull of those empty rooms, especially the one that Scarface Janz walks into, where she’s sitting alone until her daughters join her in the kitchen. “All of a sudden, we had this entirely visual sequence that wasn’t scripted and didn’t exist before. It was really thrilling to work like that, because some stuff didn’t work, but when it did, it was pure cinematic invention and that was really exciting.”

That idea of enforced silence resurfaces later in the film, when another character, Mejal (McLeod), speaks up after one of her panic attacks, which she’s had since the rapes: “They made us disbelieve ourselves. That was worse than…” Women Talking is based on true events. But by telling the story through a film, a novel, it becomes bigger than a document of isolated incidents—it becomes a parable, a symbol. (A call to prayer.) The women and girls in this story were literally made unconscious before they were attacked. But not all tranquilizing requires an animal anesthetic. The assaults in that colony reflect the way females are treated worldwide, in all types of communities. Society’s indoctrination has taught them to doubt or obscure their memories, their experiences, what their bodies know to be true.

This calls to mind many parts of Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, but one in particular, from an essay entitled ‘Mad Genius.’ Polley writes:

“So much of coming to terms with hard things from the past seems to be about believing our own accounts, having our memories confirmed by those who were there and honoured by those who weren’t. Why is it so hard for us to believe our own stories or begin to process them without corroborating witnesses appearing from the shadows of the past…?”

Now, that line from Polley’s book takes me back to another striking visual in her film. Near the beginning, as the women watch the men drive off in their buggies to post bail for the attackers, the women stand at the bottom of the frame, with only the tops of their heads visible; their bodies’ shadows stretch out onto the dirt road. Then their shadows fade, as Autje’s voiceover tells us that if the women fail to forgive the men, they will “be denied entry into the kingdom of heaven.” The image suggests a lot: Is the women’s very existence being denied? Will the men rewrite them out of the narrative if they don’t fall in line? Are the shadows of the past being erased, or are they deliberately fading back to make an open space for the future?

I asked Chris how the shadows were diminished—if they’d done it during the edit. “Total fluke,” he says. “They just shot it; they had the shadows, and it was a long shot of all the horses leaving, and it was just a cloudy day. The sun was coming in and out of clouds, and everybody on set was going, ‘Oh my god!’ Just pure luck; you could never have planned for that.”

Fluke or not, where it sits in the film, with that particular line from Autje, the shot is imbued with meaning. It also creates a stark contrast to when we next see the buggies drive off—this time, with the women as fully formed figures, grounded and in their bodies; this time, holding the reins.

Unlike the book, the film doesn’t stay behind with August, who remains in the colony to teach the older boys and men, and impart the wisdom of the minutes. It follows the women and children as they move forward into something unknown. The two endings are parallel, one playing out in the colony even in the absence of the other, both necessary to arrive at a new belief system focused on love rather than dominance.

In the book, gorgeous, powerful and spare in Toews’ words, August is left watching over two older boys as they sleep (“unconscious to be exact”), pleading silently for them to tell the truth.

With this film, we aren’t left; we are led by women, now fully conscious and awake, driving toward a future they will create, one in which they speak and believe their own stories—in which they know the truth.

*          *          *

My thanks to Chris for his time and insights. You can next see his work in David Cronenberg’s new short film, which is part of a Prada exhibition in Milan, and in the limited series Fellow Travelers, airing this autumn on Showtime. He’s also signed on to edit Cronenberg’s upcoming feature, The Shrouds, set to start shooting this spring. Chris’ work on Crimes of the Future is nominated for a Canadian Screen Award, which will be given out on April 16, 2023.

Women Talking is available on demand and still in some theatres—check your local listings. And I highly recommend reading Sarah Polley’s book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory.

Sarah Polley and Chris Donaldson at the LA premiere of Women Talking

From Tori Amos’ ‘Bells for Her’:

I said you don’t need my voice, girl
You have your own
But you never thought it was enough of
So they went years and years

Like sisters blanket girls
Always there through that and this
There’s nothing we cannot ever fix…
Bells and footfalls and soldiers and dolls
Brothers and lovers she and I were…
Now I speak to you are you in there
You have her face and her eyes
But you are not her…
Can’t stop loving
Can’t stop what is on its way
And I see it coming
And it’s on its way

4 Responses

  1. Sonia

    This is a beautifully written and evocative piece, Amanda. Makes me want to see the film. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. amanda

    Thank you, Sonia! I’m so glad it inspires you to see Women Talking. It’s coming to The Mayfair next week, FYI.

  3. Matthew Edison

    Fantastic article, Amanda. Finally got a minute to sit down and read it and I’m glad I did. Beautifully written and fascinating interview!

  4. amanda

    Thanks so much, Matt!

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