Unpacking what justice, accountability and reconciliation looks like
In Women Talking, Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s novel, Mennonite women gather in a hayloft and discuss the horrific and violent sexual assaults committed against them by the men in their community, while weighing their fight-or-flight options with considerable debate.
Toews’s painful, impactful and surprisingly hopeful novel – which is based on real assaults in Bolivia – became a #MeToo text despite being written before that movement took hold. It considers the structures that make such violence possible, and whether it’s even possible for a society to heal when there’s so much rot in its foundation.
Polley explored similar themes when adapting the TV series Alias Grace and processing her own traumatic experiences with her recent collection of essays Run Towards The Danger. For this adaptation, produced by Dede Gardner and Frances McDormand, she’s rounded up a powerhouse cast that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, newcomer Kate Hallett as the young child in their midst (and the film’s narrator) and Ben Whishaw as August, the lone male listening to these women talking with empathy and hope.
We invited Polley to unpack her film with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, hosting a meeting of two passionate and incisive voices in Canadian film that has been a long time coming. They’re both actors, activists and filmmakers who directed personal documentaries (Polley’s Stories We Tell and Tailfeathers’s Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy), starred in zombie movies (Dawn Of The Dead and Blood Quantum) and made films about women feeling trapped in abusive homes (Women Talking and The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open).
On a Zoom call, Polley and Tailfeathers explore the making of Women Talking and how the film’s ideas about justice, accountability and reconciliation speaks to more than just a hayloft full of women.
Sarah Polley: I’m very excited to meet you.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: That’s wild to hear. But same. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
SP: Where are you right now?
EMT: I’m at home at Kainai, on the Blood reserve at my mom’s place in southern Alberta. I’ve recently left Vancouver and have moved home to the reserve. I’m finally in a place in my career where I can just live wherever I want to live, which is nice. And the pandemic was so illuminating in so many ways. I just realized, “What am I doing in this tiny apartment in Vancouver when I could be home with my family on the reserve?”
SP: Do you feel like making [Kímmapiiyipitssini] helped move that process?
EMT: For sure. It was just such a wonderful experience to be able to come home and actually work with my community. I gained a renewed respect and love for my community. That was already there, but it was kind of amplified by coming home. Every time I left to go back to Vancouver, I just felt more and more heartsick for home.
SP: Your documentary is incredible. It’s just transformative. I felt very changed by it and so grateful for it. So I can see why you’re there. I get it. And The Body Remembers really is one of my favourite Canadian features ever made. I remember being so staggered by it when I saw it.
EMT: I’m in awe that you’ve even watched my films and also that you feel that way because I’ve been such an admirer of yours for a long time. Stories We Tell was very influential when I made my first doc, Bihttoš. Myself and five other Indigenous women were commissioned by imagineNATIVE to make short films as part of a project called the Embargo Collective. The idea was that we would create something with a set of restrictions or obstructions. It was inspired by Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions.
SP: So was Stories We Tell!
EMT: That’s so wild. I had no idea. They challenged me to make something personal and inspired by Lisa Jackson’s short film, Sucker Fish. Your film came out the year before I had to make mine. I ended up making a film about my father, his time at the Sami boarding school in Norway, intergenerational trauma and the power of love. And I just found your film so inspiring and influential in my process.
How are you doing? You just came off this massive book tour and have been sharing so much about your personal story. And now you’re about to promote a big film.
SP: I’m mostly just tired. It’s been a great summer of being with the kids full time. It’s a lot more challenging actually than making a film. I’m not tired from work. I’m tired from just trying to not fail as a parent. The stakes are high. They’re a lot higher than managing a film. You want to make sure that what you’re saying and what you’re doing is reflective of the kind of world you want your kid to grow up in. And that’s enormous.
And releasing the book into the world was actually a really wonderful experience because it was like releasing Stories We Tell, where I got to learn about other people’s stories. That is such a gift: when you put something out into the world and people are generous with their own stories.
The film was definitely not simple. But the shoot especially felt like this magical space where people were just bringing everything they had and everything they’d pent up over the pandemic, and everything they had been storing in them – all these conversations around violence against women – and bringing it into this space, this hayloft. That was an amazing thing to get to be there for.
And it was a very collaborative, nurturing place because of the people in it. It was just populated with incredibly empathetic, sensitive human beings who were giving everything they had. That felt energizing and nourishing in a way that I haven’t experienced before [when] making a film.
EMT: It’s such a beautiful film. It’s so deeply moving. So powerful. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I guess we should launch into actually talking about the film. Why this film? Why this book?
SP: It’s so strange. The first time I heard about it was actually at my book club. I’m part of this book club of women who I really admire, who are around 20, 30 years older than me for the most part. I kind of lobbied to get myself into. They rejected me a few times and I just wore them down.
I remember one night – I cannot remember who it was and neither can anyone in the book club – somebody took me aside in the kitchen and said, “I’m going to tell you about a book I just read and when I tell you what the backdrop of it is, you’re not going to want to read it and you’re not going to want to make it into a film. But just know that what I’m going to tell you is the backdrop of the book to lead up to what the book is actually about, which doesn’t actually go into this sort of horrific sexual violence. What it actually is about is what happens afterwards and how these women respond.”
She described the book and what it was: this idea of these women who gather in this hayloft to decide how to respond to what has happened in their community, how to respond to this harm by having to make a decision between doing nothing, staying, fighting or leaving. By the end of the conversation, I knew I had to make it into a film.
I’m not someone who goes around looking for films to make. I was perfectly happy at that point in my life to not make a film again. And it was a very strange response to have. But there was something about that premise. I also love Miriam’s writing. So I ran out and got the book. And then literally within days I saw an announcement that Frances McDormand and Dede Gardner had got the rights to it. And then I sent an email to my manager, who is also Fran’s manager, Frank Frattaroli, and said, “Do you know if they have a writer or director yet for this?” And within an hour, he had an email in his inbox from Frances asking what I was doing and if I was interested.
And so then I talked to Dede and Fran. I said to them, “Look, I wasn’t looking for a film to make and here’s why. I have three kids. I’m not interested in disappearing for 16 hours a day. I actually don’t think I can direct a film. But I don’t know what to do because I love this. Could it wait till my kids are a lot older? Because I really don’t want to disappear for this amount of time and I don’t see another way of doing it unless we were to work like 10-hour days, which is impossible basically.” And Fran just sort of let out this battle cry. And was like, “Well, you know, we’re women talking and we’re in an industry where men have written the rules and it’s time for us to rewrite the rules. So let’s just rewrite the rules and just say yes. We’ll do short days and make it viable.”
There was just something about when I read that book, I just felt like it was sort of searing through me, it was touching on things I wasn’t fully conscious of. It brought up stuff that I hadn’t brought into the light. And questions that I think were really hard to ask and difficult to unpack during the beginning of the #MeToo movement – just a lot of the complexities around the individuals, systems and systemic problems and structures of power. Those are also things that have to be looked at. And what patriarchy looks like and feels like for everyone of all genders and how painful it is. I was just really challenged by it and electrified by it.
EMT: When [NOW editor] Rad reached out to me to speak to you about this, I was like, “What do I have to offer about this particular story?” I’m so far removed from the experience of Mennonite women in this country and also in Bolivia where the book is set. But what I discovered in listening to it and then watching your film is that there is this deep universality to the conversations that are had, to the experiences that are had. I just felt so deeply connected to the material in a way that I did not expect to feel at all.
I have questions about your choices with the adaptation. The first one, which really caught me off guard but I was so into, was the fact that Autje (Hallett) narrated the entire film and that it was delivered to Ona’s [Rooney Mara] unborn child. As soon as I realized that was what was happening, I was brought to tears. It offered a sense of hope, of a future, and made me feel deeply connected to the material in a way that I wasn’t able to connect with when we had August essentially narrating the entire book.
SP: This was a really late decision. I wrote the script with August as the narrator. I loved his voice. I love Ben Whishaw’s voice. We went right through the shooting process with August as the narrator. And in fact, it was Ben, who, in my very first meeting with him, first planted the seed and said, “You’re sure you want to hear a man’s voice tell this story? I’m happy to do it, but …” And I was like, “No, no, it really works. It’s so beautiful and so unexpected and interesting.”
And then, the editing process was long and there was a moment where we needed to do something really radical. And it was an amazing sort of brainstorming of a few different people. Dede, I think, originally brought up the idea [that] we need to think about the narrator. The idea was maybe it’s Ona talking to her unborn child. And then (editor) Chris Donaldson [who had never read the book] said the narration is beautiful but I need this to be through the voice of a woman who’s been assaulted. And I think this is the character. I think it should be Autje.
And [Kate Halett’s] performance was so strong. Throughout the rehearsal process, every actor came up to me at various times saying, “We need more of her.” We were always kind of training the camera on her, but not sure what to do with it. So then I was like, “What if we put Chris and Dede’s idea together and it’s Autje talking to Ona’s unborn child?”
The decision-making process around that was really emblematic of the process of the film. It was a lot of people building on each other, standing on each other’s shoulders and getting further with an idea. I obviously had a specific vision and strong feelings about things, but I also had incredibly smart and wise collaborators at every stage. And I really wanted, in the spirit of the book, for the film to feel like a collective process – to sort of break the mould of the single-visioned auteur male filmmaker whose hurricane everyone bends around. That to me was one of the things I’m proudest of in the film: that decision making process that resulted in the voice of the film being entirely different. Because it wasn’t one person’s initiative. It was many people’s. And it was the result of really hard conversations and really hard challenges to ourselves and each other, which is really what the film is about.
EMT: You had such an incredible cast. Every performance was stunning and devastating. And she held her own. What I felt with Autje and Netje (Liv McNeil) and the other young actors was that there was a sense of dignity and conviction that so many young people today have. They are challenging us to do better and to stand up for what’s right in a way that my generation, your generation and those before us haven’t had the opportunity to. Because there is a language for it now.
That’s referenced in the book and in the film. When you don’t have a language for something, where do you begin? Young people today have this language and it’s so real, radical and smart. To hear the narration through her voice directed at the future – and that the future will be different – is so empowering. When we talk about violence against women, it’s something we’ve all experienced in some capacity. And it can be a very heavy thing to talk about because it is so real. And I think that turning it towards hope, turning it towards dignity and towards a future where we can imagine radical alternatives is a place of power.
SP: I think what drew me most to the book and the idea of making it into a film was this idea [that] it’s important to talk about what we want to destroy and what we want to tear down. But we also have to put as much or more focus on what we want to build and what we want to see and how we want to live. What is the world we actually are working towards? I agree with you.
At the same time, as the world is completely apocalyptic right now in ways we could have never imagined, I’ve never felt so much hope or faith in people. Having relationships with people who are in their 20s and teenagers right now where it’s just such a different way of approaching the world. And it is so smart. And it’s not like what I imagine the idealism of the 60s to be. It’s rooted in so much information, dialogue and hard truths and challenges. And yet this drive and this electricity that’s coming up is really thrilling. And Kate, Liv McNeil and Shayla Brown were really amazing to have on set for that reason. [They’re] just incredibly smart, incredibly engaged, political, articulate, brave. It just sort of makes you feel like, “Damn, it would have been awesome to have been born when you guys were born. I wish I could hang out you guys more often.”
EMT: There’s been all these really generative and important conversations, especially during the pandemic, about abolition of the prison system, of dismantling the police, of dismantling so many oppressive structures and systems that we are forced to live under in the Western world. There’s conversations about what do we replace it with?
From an Indigenous perspective, it’s simply about reclamation and restoration of the way we were before capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism were imposed on our people. And for me, that’s a really beautiful thing to think about: futurisms being simply about reclamation and restoration of the way it was before.
[What came to mind for me] watching this film is Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that process and everything that’s been unearthed since the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. I found so many parallels with the film and those conversations around justice within Indigenous communities and what justice looks like for us; especially after the pope came to visit. There was this massive spectacle of the pope visiting communities and apologizing and actually using the word genocide on his way back to Rome.
I found so many parallels [with] this conversation about justice. What does justice look like? What does justice feel like? What is a valid response to this violence? How do we seek out perpetrators? And what would it even look like to find them and find some form of justice? Does that mean sending these priests and nuns to jail? What does it look like, especially from the perspective of being a prison abolitionist?
I think that we shouldn’t have prisons. They’re a horrible thing. But what does the world look like without prisons? And what does it look like to place perpetrators of violence in prison? There’s all these questions about valid responses to violence and what happens afterwards.
From an Indigenous experience, it’s the victims or the survivors that are placed with the burden of healing of moving forward, of reconciling in our case. The state is asking us to reconcile while there is still great injustice happening every day. And the burden of healing is also placed on the descendants of survivors.
I think that’s something that I really found in the film: this idea of the burden of healing but also the power of healing being something that is passed on through the generations. And that it doesn’t only apply to women in the book. It applies to all genders. I wanted to hear more about your thoughts on that.
SP: Thank you so much for that. I’m really interested in your thoughts on prisons, just because I feel like all you have to do is walk through a prison to have major questions about what a prison means. It’s something I think we leapt to really quickly in the #MeToo movement. I completely understand it. I really understand the need to see people held accountable for what’s happened. The history of prisons isn’t a great one. And it’s generally not powerful white men who are going to prison.
To be honest, I’m just curious to hear your perspective on the pope’s visit. What did it feel like to you?
EMT: It was surreal. My mother, who you saw in Kímmapiiyipitssini, she’s a doctor. She works with Alberta Health Services. She and a group of other physicians volunteered to go and be emotional and health support for people who are going to attend the pope’s visit. She wanted to be there to support elders and survivors and the descendants of survivors. I got the updates throughout the day about what she was experiencing. And she told me the pope had this really intense security set-up. There were police with guns or armed people standing on the roofs of buildings across the street to protect the pope.
To me, that just speaks to the level of protection that that institution has. And it makes you question how could we really ever expect an institution with so much power and money to truly be held accountable for what they’ve done? How can you hold an institution like that accountable for generations of pain? And also, how could he possibly ever understand what has happened by simply visiting and then speaking?
We gave him a microphone, but really he should have just been spending time with our elders and our youth and listening to them and witnessing the power within our communities, because there is a lot of pain, there’s so much trauma that in many ways can’t be undone. But there is so much strength within our communities.
In my documentary, I really wanted to be able to speak to that strength and the capacity that our communities have to work through so much with so few resources. Think about an institution like the Catholic Church and the amount of resources that they have. How can you even begin to talk about justice and accountability when the power imbalance is just so, so vast?
The experience was very surreal for me because I was here at home sitting with my grandmother who went to a Catholic Indian residential school. Just to sit with her and to watch her process all of it: seeing the pope get a headdress when that’s something that should be earned for acts of strength, courage, generosity and leadership. I think that was really hard for her.
For others that seemed like a justifiable thing to do; the right thing to do. There were so many responses to the pope’s visit. People were angry. People felt vindicated. Some people felt a sense of healing, to hear this man apologize on behalf of this institution. Others, I guess, just felt ambivalent. In some ways, I did as well. It was just like, “Oh, great. Here’s another spectacle from an institution like the Catholic Church where we’re just expected to accept an apology.” And then they leave. And then things go back to normal and nothing changes.
What I felt with your film and with the book is just that there are so many valid responses to violence and so many questions around what does justice actually look like? Something that I found really kind of powerful was that statement: “If I stay, I’ll become a murderer.” When you are a subject of these systems of oppression, it’s almost impossible to extract yourself from it. But also, we can’t replicate these harms that are done by participating in them.
You think about justice in terms of prisons and policing. Those are simply systems of oppression that have done so much harm, especially to Black and Indigenous people and racialized people. How is that justice when it is simply replicating violence in so many ways? That simple statement in the book, “if I stay, I’ll become a murderer,” just spoke so much to me.
SP: While you were talking, what I was thinking about was the line that’s from the book: “Is forgiveness that is forced upon us true forgiveness?” Forgiveness can’t be impelled. It has to be on the terms of the person whose right it is to forgive. It’s not something that can happen on a set date where everything just gets cleaned up. And I think that these women do have a deep interest in finding empathy, love and forgiveness. But it’s going to be on their timeline and it’s going to be when they’ve rebuilt. And it’s going to be after whatever they say it’s going to be after.
There’s a lot of conversation in the film around forgiveness that I was just thinking about in the context of what you’ve just said – the idea that there’s going to be this neat and tidy reconciliation and then we all wipe our hands clean. It’s a really long process. And that process really has to be up to the people who are harmed. Not for the people who would like forgiveness.
EMT: Exactly. And generally, the way it works is that those who expect forgiveness are at the centre and they’re guiding the conversation and making the choices.
SP: And there’s also, I think, sadly, in any situation where there’s been injustice, there’s a huge majority of the people with power who aren’t even interested in reconciliation. They’re not asking for forgiveness.
EMT: Folks in power generally aren’t interested in reconciliation or apologizing because it requires accountability. And that goes back to this question of justice or restitution. What does accountability actually look like? I think there’s another line in the book and in the film that was just so powerful that it actually brought me to tears. It took my breath away. When August apologized to Ona and she said, “Thank you. I’d like to hear that from somebody who should actually be saying sorry.” And it was just a really powerful moment.
In Canada. I think we have a lot of allies. We have a lot of settlers who are unlearning. And that’s really difficult work. Because how do you unlearn a lifetime of entitlement and privilege that comes with being a settler on stolen land? How do you unlearn a lifetime of that? And it is so much more than just saying sorry. I find a lot of hope and power in knowing that there are settlers willing to stand alongside of us and to do that really important work of unlearning and to support us and to listen to us. And so I felt that August in many ways kind of represented that for me.
But it is people in power who have to sort of be dragged through the mud. We have to uncover unmarked graves for them to be willing to even say their story or to even begin to acknowledge what they’ve done. And I don’t necessarily want to make this comparison: The character of Miep and that horrific thing that happened to this child and her mother’s justified rage – I saw parallels with residential schools and with the unmarked graves. The gravity of the crime is so atrocious that it requires the state to say something, to apologize. But how do you undo the harm from the gravity of a crime like that? Again, there were so many parallels there in terms of justice and healing. What does that look like in the future? And what does that look like for children who have been harmed by the violence?
SP: It would also be a welcome shift if people could stop having to do the labour of uncovering and accusing, and have people actually voluntarily step forward and say what harm was done and preempt that labour by apologizing. I think that to me would be a shift that would be really helpful. Whether it be violence against women or violence on a state level like you’re talking about, or violence that comes from racism or sexism.
I’ve seen little glimmers of it around the #MeToo movement where people would reach out and go, “I’m really sorry I did this thing.” But it has to stop falling on communities that have been harmed to do the work of uncovering and telling the story. People in power have to start voluntarily taking ownership for what they’ve done without expecting that amount of labour from people who’ve already been so unbelievably harmed.
EMT: Yeah, absolutely. And if they’re not willing to do that, then I think the simple replacement of people in power with others is also not going to work. We have to completely dismantle both systems and structures.
SP: Yeah, it doesn’t work. The film goes from a conversation about individual harm and individuals who perpetrated that harm to “this world doesn’t work.” We have to build a new one. And if we don’t, there’ll just be other individuals that will take the place of the old ones who will engage in the same kinds of things. We have to remake what the world is. We have to rediscover who we are in the absence of violence and oppression. And we have to create a world in which people can grow up not locked into these ideas of what they’re entitled to and what we’re not entitled to.
EMT: That final speech that Jessie Buckley has at the end was just devastating. I was so moved by all of that because it’s such an important part of the conversation to be had about the fact that we are trapped within the patriarchy and these systems of oppression. Women often don’t have a choice. And there’s this victim blaming, especially with women who are living with intimate partner violence or women who are with partners who are violent in other ways. It’s so important to acknowledge that and to have compassion and empathy for people who are experiencing that.
SP: I love how The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open does that. The end shot where [Rosie] goes back into the apartment building. There’s just such a sense of acceptance that she is going to make her own decisions and it’s painful, it’s hard, and that people need to take their own time. We have internalized this sense of powerlessness and then also imposed it on each other. The judgment and harshness that women can hold towards each other having sort of absorbed these ways of thinking about the world. It’s such a tangled mess. But I think acknowledging that mess is a first step to something.
EMT: Yeah, absolutely. That moment is what happened in real life, when I brought [the person Rosie is based on] home. For years, I had to live with that. What happened to her? And what does my anger really mean? And who am I to judge because I have not been in that situation. To strip her of that agency to make her own choice is just as harmful. So I think it’s important that that’s part of the conversation, and to acknowledge the fact that having these attitudes of judgment, which come from misunderstanding or lack of experience, can be so harmful.
SP: It’s really helped me articulate something. The character in that film is choosing between a known violence or stepping into a void. And I think that’s why this conversation of what we are trying to build is so important. Because choosing between the worst situation and a void, a lot of people are going to choose the worst situation. A void is really scary. We’re just not programed to walk off the edge of a cliff. What does it mean to start picturing where we might land? The next world that aligns with our sense of compassion and empathy and intelligence, what does that look like? I think that imagining helps us to take that step out of where the harm is. For some reason, that image of [Rosie in Body Remembers] walking into that apartment building helped articulate that for me. Until she can imagine what that next life might look like, and have that be an active part of her life, we can’t expect anybody to move anywhere.
EMT: The book came out unintentionally right after the #MeToo movement. I know that Miriam Toews had been working on the book for quite some time. That she didn’t intend to release it in that moment, which was such a huge cultural moment. And here you are releasing the film following the Supreme Court in the U.S. overturning Roe v Wade. There’s this massive conversation and movement toward protecting women’s reproductive rights. That shift towards diminishing or erasing women’s reproductive rights and women’s agency or sovereignty over their bodies is really terrifying. But it’s also giving me so much hope to see so many young women out on the streets fighting and also to see this intergenerational strength that exists. We’re seeing women of all ages. We’re seeing our allies out there fighting for women’s reproductive rights.
How are you feeling about releasing a film in another massive cultural moment for all of us? It’s so timely. The book and the film both touch on all of the things that we’re talking about in this bigger conversation when it comes to the autonomy over women’s bodies.
SP: What I love about the book and what I tried to capture in the film is this environment in which women who disagree with each other on some very essential things – like really essential building blocks of thought and being in the world – have to figure out how to move forward together. Not necessarily leave those differences behind or even overcome them. But how do they find a way forward together, given that the stakes are so high?
I’m just curious about where we’re going to see that go in the real world right now. Because I think there is an opportunity for people who have a lot of different feelings about abortion to actually have a conversation about what it means for abortions to be illegal. What does that mean in terms of women dying and women being unsafe? You can come at the abortion debate with any number of personal feelings about abortion itself and still acknowledge the reality of what a world where abortion is illegal looks like. And we know what it looks like. It’s bloody and ugly. My hope is that people find themselves moving towards positions that might be uncomfortable for them.
EMT: You’ve done such a beautiful job with this film. I was so deeply moved. I watched it in a theatre by myself with a male security guard. I just couldn’t help but wonder, “What is this security guard thinking about this?” And at the end, I walked out and we said good night to each other. He seemed genuinely moved, like he’d had an experience. So I really hope men watch this film and take something away from it.
What I appreciate about the film is that men are also included in the conversation in a way that allows for generative change and for unlearning and learning new things and doing things differently. I just hope that people are able to have the opportunity to have the same experience I did watching this.
SP: Thank you so much. I think you’ve destroyed me for every interview I’m ever going to do for the rest of my life. I feel like my brain is exploding in terms of how much I learned in this conversation.