Telluride: With ‘Women Talking,’ Sarah Polley Brings ‘Fierce’ Lessons to Screen

Telluride: With ‘Women Talking,’ Sarah Polley Brings ‘Fierce’ Lessons to  Screen

When Sarah Polley was in her 20s, just starting to direct short films, she got lots of advice from female directors she worked with as an actor, like Kathryn Bigelow, Audrey Wells and Isabel Coixet. “These women grabbed onto me and said, ‘You’re doing it, and here’s how fierce you’re going to have to be,’” Polley said, speaking at her Telluride Film Festival silver medallion tribute Friday night, ahead of the first public screening of her new film, Women Talking. “Kathryn Bigelow said, ‘You have to be like a dog with a bone, and everyone’s going to try to take it away from you.’”

Women Talking, a United Artists film which will also screen at the Toronto International Film Festival next week ahead of opening in theaters Dec. 2, is potent evidence Polley took that message to heart. Based on the 2018 novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which was inspired by a real 2011 event, the movie stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley as women in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony. Together, they hold a secret meeting to decide how to respond to being drugged and raped by some of the men in their sect. Their daylong deliberations in a hayloft — at turns angry, poignant and even funny — feel as modern and thoughtful as any conversations about sexual violence and gender that the #MeToo movement has sparked. 

At Polley’s Telluride tribute, Frances McDormand, who produced the film with Dede Gardner and plays a small role, presented the writer-director with her medallion. She playfully simulated someone conferring a knighthood and was joined onstage by nine members of the sprawling, overwhelmingly female cast , including Mara, Foy, Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, August Winter, Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil.

Polley, who first appeared on screen at age 4 and first got attention in the U.S. for her work in films like The Sweet Hereafter and Go, hasn’t acted since 2010. “As a child actor, it wasn’t a great experience and, in some cases, quite traumatic,” said Polley, who wrote about her frightening experiences on the set of Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in her 2022 book of essays, Run Toward the Danger. Once she started to direct, making films like 2006’s Away From Her with Julie Christie, “speaking with actors took the longest to figure out. I had such self-consciousness.”

But the process of making Women Talking, which she shot in Toronto in the summer of 2021, may have rekindled an interest in appearing in front of the screen, Polley said. “Watching the sense of community and collaboration [these actresses had] made me think, ‘Maybe, one day,’” Polley said. She also said she said felt a particular awareness of the set experiences of her film’s child actresses.

In the opening moments of Women Talking, a title card appears that reads, “What follows is an act of female imagination.” The line is both an assertion of purpose by its female storytellers — Polley and Toews — and a reclamation of the phrase, one that is used to gaslight the women in the colony into thinking their sexual assaults, which happened while they were drugged with livestock tranquilizer, were actually visits from demons. The movie includes moments of intergenerational debate among the women about how to respond to the attacks, whether to leave or fight back. “Want less,” one older woman says, by way of advice, to a younger woman. The women also wonder how to protect their children, male and female, from the culture their attackers have absorbed.

“The questions this book raised for me lived with me for a long time,” Polley said, describing the conversations she shared with Gardner and McDormand as the movie took shape. Women Talking, she said, “Began with three women talking a lot. Fruitful, rich, challenging, beautiful conversations that shifted who I was and how I was living my life.”

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