Earlier this year, CT reported on the sexual abuse and spiritual manipulation of Jean Vanier, who violated at least 25 adult women without disabilities over nearly a 70-year period, and did so “during prayer and spiritual devotion.”
A few weeks ago, Hohn Cho came forward about how elders at Grace Community Church mishandled treatment of women who were abused by their husbands. These names and institutions have been circulated among evangelical communities, among a list of other abusers that have been accused over the past several years.
In some accounts of sexual abuse cases, the story presented to the world is about the abuser rather than the act of courage it took for the survivor to step forward—sometimes for the sake of the survivor’s privacy and safety. But that’s not the case when it comes to the recent film Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley (spoilers ahead).
Polley’s film centers on a group of eight women in a religious community left in the wake of sexual violence. The film is adapted from a book with the same title released in 2018 by Miriam Toews. In the book, the author imagines what could have taken place during an egregious yet true event that happened in a Bolivian Mennonite colony back in 2009—in which over a hundred women and girls, including children as young as five years old, were drugged with animal tranquilizers and systematically raped by men in the colony.
Throughout the film, the focus stays on the women who were abused. The stylistic choices of the film are sensitive to the topics at hand and aim to keep the survivors’ stories, dignity, and emotions at the center of the narrative. According to Polley, “We never showed the assaults. We don’t go deep into that. What we go into is the recovery and the healing and the conversation.”
The filmmakers do not include any faces of any of the abusers, and only one of the abusive men is named. This is a deliberate detail to keep the survivors in the center of the story, especially in contrast to how abusers’ names are the ones so often repeated in mainstream media. This is also a distinct element to the film adaptation, omitting these details from the book.
Instead, Women Talking invites us to witness the thoughts, emotions, and responses of those who were abused. We get the rare opportunity to see a glimpse into the world of survivors, to empathize and sympathize with those harmed—and more importantly, to witness them process their faith amid spiritual manipulation.
The abusers led the women to believe they were possessed by ghosts or demons. As the narrator, who is cast as the voice of one of the survivors, said: “They told us that it was Satan. Or the result of wild female imagination.”
While the true events took place in Bolivia, the film was shot in Canada. Polley’s goal was to make the events portrayed in the movie feel as if they could have happened at any time or in any place—since the film’s focus was not so much on the setting but on the conversation and the exchange of ideas.
In an interview on the Scriptnotes podcast, the director states that she “wanted it to be timeless. I didn’t want people to be able to pin these issues which we’re dealing with in every patriarchal society to some degree or another on this obscure, already misunderstood community.”
This movie could not come at a more opportune time for those in the Christian community, as we are being bombarded by stories of sexual abuse at the hands of spiritual leaders.
When asked about why she made the film, Polley said, “I [make films] because I feel like I have to and it’s urgent. I hadn’t felt like that about anything in a really long time. I felt like that about this book and working with these people.”
In the film, we see the women comparing their stories as well as wrestling with their faith as they process the aftermath of their sexual and spiritual abuse. The abusers tell the women that if they leave the cult, they won’t go to heaven—gaslighting the women into thinking they must choose between their safety and their salvation.
This is seen most evidently in Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), who stays behind because she is afraid of eternal damnation if she leaves with the others. As Craig Mazin, film and television writer and producer, from Scriptnotes states, “She’s so enslaved that she can’t imagine being free.”
After many hours of conversation in the hayloft of a barn, the other women decide to leave the colony. And although religion is used as a weapon of abuse against the women, their decision to leave is grounded in their faith. As Greta (Sheila McCarthy) says, “We are leaving because our faith is stronger than the rules. Bigger than our life.”
As Justin Chang writes in NPR’s film review of Women Talking,
What distinguishes this survival story from so many others is that, even as it acknowledges the abusive, patriarchal power structure in this religious colony, it still takes seriously the question of spiritual belief: It’s the women’s faith in God that ultimately empowers them to imagine a better, fairer way of life.
With many stories about sexual manipulation and sexual abuse in churches and Christian organizations, we often hear about the organizations that have failed and about the leaders who fell short. But we rarely get to hear about the acts of immense courage it takes to even just admit that one has been abused, let alone decide to stand up against a system of abuse.
Women Talking is a film that’s designed to start more conversations around abuse stories, especially in the context of faith. It gives us the opportunity to see a spectrum of responses from those abused and provides representation of the survivors behind the scandal. It also shows the emotional and spiritual turmoil that goes into the decision to speak out against abuse.
To me, one of the most impactful moments in the film is when Autje (Kate Hallett) gives a brief monologue, saying “We didn’t talk about our bodies, so when something happened, we didn’t have the language for it. Without language for it, there was a silence, and in that silence was the real horror.”
Without the words to explain their experiences, survivors sometimes lack the power to do anything about their abuse. And in a broader sense, this reminds us of how difficult it can be to stand up against abuse when we don’t know how. It often takes someone leading by example to get others to act. For every person that stands up against abuse, there are a handful of others who hear that person’s story and recognize themselves in it.
In the end, the eight women in the film rely on Philippians 4:8 in choosing to leave their abusers. They knew that, whatever they decided, they must cling to what is good, even if the future was completely uncertain. To cope with this uncertainty, the film ends with the women listing good things—a literal practice of clinging to what is good.
At the prescreening I attended, I was fortunate to hear Sarah Polley speak about her experience of making Women Talking. I remember her saying that she hoped people leave the theater continuing the conversation that the film started. Personally, I hope this conversation continues in the church.
As Christians, we especially grieve for those who have been spiritually manipulated on top of being sexually abused—for the ways someone else’s sin has harmed them and for the way their trust was broken by those they saw as spiritual leaders.
And for survivors in the context of Christian institutions—for those who know that their faith is stronger than the forces fighting against them—we pray that they too will have the strength and courage to cling to what is true and good.
Mia Staub is the content manager at Christianity Today.