February 8, 2023

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How Sarah Polley Is ‘Speaking Women’ With Hope and Humor

8 min read

“I know what your next movie is.”

It was a member of Sarah Polley’s book club who first made the statement to her: “I know what your next movie is.” But it was subject to certain conditions. Polly recalls: “He took me into the kitchen and said, ‘When I tell you what the context of the story is, you don’t want to do the film. So just bear with me.’ He told me the backstory and I said, ‘I don’t want to make it into a movie.’

The book in question was “Women Talking” by Miriam Toews, the story of women in a Mennonite community who learn that several men have been drugging and raping them for years, blaming demons for their injuries. Toews wrote the 2018 novel after learning about a case in Bolivia in which seven men were put on trial for such a crime in 2011. Toews’s novel details a secret meeting that takes place in a hayloft that only a few of the women are presented with. Options – They can forgive their abusers, fight back, or leave the community they’ve known all their lives.

After hearing more about the book, Polly was quickly won over. “She started telling me the story of this group of women in this passionate, intense debate about where their future should take them,” says the filmmaker. “And when he finished describing it to me, I freaked out and I ran and got the book.”

A professional actor at a young age, Polly has already directed three acclaimed films, including 2006’s “Away From Her” and 2011’s “Take This Waltz”. Her last film was 2012’s “Stories We Tell,” a gripping and deeply personal documentary about the filmmaker learning she was the product of an extramarital affair. But in 2015, Polley was hit in the head by a fire extinguisher and suffered a debilitating injury that kept him in bed for weeks and halted his directing career. Although he thrived, he had other objections to the tough schedule of making the movie.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

But Polley learned that the book was owned by Frances McDormand and Dede Gardner and reached out to see if a writer-director was still attached. “Literally, at the same hour, they reached out to me a little earlier to see if I was free,” recalls Polly. “So it felt very meaningful.”

Polly’s adaptation attracted an all-star cast, including McDormand in a supporting role. Rooney stars as Mara Ona, a woman who finds herself pregnant from a rape but doesn’t let the crimes shake her faith. Claire Foy plays his sister Salome, who is fueled by understandable anger. Jessie Buckley plays Mariche, an abused wife who is Autz’s mother, with Kate Hallett making her first professional acting role. Also starring Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whish also plays August, the only male ally who attends their meetings and takes minutes as the only person who can read and write between them.

diversity spoke to Pauly about his return to filmmaking and the positive response to the film, which hits theaters on December 23.

I talk to a lot of people who are really excited about this movie. I’m not totally surprised by its quality, but at the same time have you ever thought about finding an audience? You’re not a big-budget summer blockbuster.

Sarah Polley: Or are we? (Laughs.) I mean, I’m thrilled to see the conversation around it, and I’m just excited that people are engaging with the hopeful, optimistic pace of the film, which is what it aims for. It is not a carnival of grief and anger. It touches on those things but the idea is: so what? How can we move forward? What is community? What does building a different world look like?

I’m really happy and surprised that these conversations are coming out of the film, and that’s what people are listening to. Because it would be really easy for people to make a false assumption about this film – that it will make them feel dark and hopeless. Which is not a film designed by us.

I keep telling people: It’s got some very funny moments. Yes, there are serious moments but there is humor in even the darkest parts of life.

Polly: Humor was so important to us. When I first met with Miriam about adapting it, I asked, “If there was one thing that was most important to you in translating this book to film, what would it be?” And he said very quickly, “Smile.” So that was a north star for us to go, “We have to make sure that at some point we find a smile or a joy or a glimmer somewhere in this film, so that we don’t walk away from it. Because people need to feel allowed to feel anything at any moment.”

Going back to how you didn’t want to manage – did you find yourself retired or did nothing speak to you for a long time?

Polly: It was a combination of factors. The first is that I had three young children, I didn’t want to work 17 to 18 hours when they were young. So a big part of that first meeting was: Could it have been done differently? Can we have humanitarian hours and can I and the rest of the group manage to put our kids to bed or take care of parents or take care of people.

The second was, I had a 3½-year brain injury where I couldn’t work. I had a really bad concussion and had post-concussive syndrome that lasted a really long time. By the time I took up this project I had recovered. But combining these two things put me out of control for a long time. And I didn’t think I’d ever be able to ask for a 10-hour workday. Being there with Fran and Dede separated it all. Fran’s response was very immediate, saying they would figure out a way to make it work.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

I hear so many stories of people who stop managing just because it takes so much away from your life.

Polly: I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who made a film and then had children and self-selected and are now screenwriters. And I was one of those people. I have been writing and rewriting scripts for other people for the last 10 years. Because that’s how I can be an active, present parent and still work.

So clearly, there are many barriers and systemic barriers to women working. But there’s also the problem that people don’t want to miss out on their children’s childhood, and we’ve lost a lot of women because of that. So I was one of the many people who chose that path. For someone to give me a way to go back to my job that didn’t require me to completely disappear from my kids for that period of time – I was so grateful for that.

I never quite understood how we settled into the 17-hour workday. And when it becomes the norm.

Polly: Remember how the labor movement fought for the 40 hour work week? what happened You basically have to be someone who doesn’t want to take on any kind of domestic life or caring responsibilities to make a film – it makes absolutely no sense. I feel that things are starting to change and people are starting to fight for it more and more. But it’s a slow process and it will require people like Dede and Fran who have the will and energy to make it happen.

People work faster and better and more happily when they sleep. And when they saw their family or their loved ones. It’s just a fact. And also, it’s unsafe if you’re asking people to be around big heavy machinery and drive a long way home after working 17-, 18-, 19-hour days.

In your adaptation, the character Atze, a young girl, narrates the story. But the book is told through the minutes of the August meeting. Can you talk about that change?

Polly: In the book, it worked beautifully to read the story through August’s notes and explanations. Because, Miriam says, it’s not just about women, it’s about men listening and taking notes. And there was something almost subversive about having a male voice at its center. And we shot that way. I scripted it that way. And it was in the editing process where we knew something was missing. And trying to put our finger on what that was. And I think we realized that with the immediacy of an image in front of us and the intimacy of sound in our ears, we needed a female voice who felt these things to tell our story. And also, there was this opportunity for a sense of the future in that narrative, a sense of things moving forward. And it gave a much-needed sense of hope. And in a weird way, my feeling is that even though the movie became less literal in adapting from the book, it captures the spirit of the book better now than we did when we were more literal in the adaptation.

Also in the book it specifies that it takes place in a Mennonite community but I don’t believe that’s ever said in the movie – or is it?

Polly: It is a Mennonite community. And in the book, it is very clearly referred to as a Mennonite community. Miriam Mennonite. But this film lives more in the realm of fiction. I didn’t want people from a more secular culture to be able to use the word Mennonite, pushing these issues away and “othering” them and making them seem like something far away from us. I didn’t want to give people that excuse.

So I think I think that someone who identifies as Mennonite knows what Mennonite committees are like. We were very authentic in terms of community details and clothing and production design. But also, I think, in telling this story, as a non-Mennonite, some really serious, moral questions should be asked, especially because this is a community that, by its very nature, cannot speak. They can’t go to a newspaper, they can’t write an op-ed, they can’t go on television and criticize the way this film was made. So I think you have to be aware when you’re making a film about a community that’s not your own. And I think you have to tread very carefully. And I thought, that would be a disservice to the overall discussion, to allow people to say, “Well, this is something that only happens in this very isolated, religious, misunderstood community.”

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