Vital Topics: Social Work & Film
by SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD
Content warning: Rape/Violence
If you tuned in to the 95th Academy Awards ceremony on March 12, 2023, amidst many compelling changes, updates, and recognitions, you may know of one “smack in the face” category exclusion. Although Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, which she both wrote and directed, was nominated for Best Picture, Polley (and all women!) were excluded this year from consideration in the highly coveted director category. In a recent interview with Variety, this striking omission led Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman and Monster, to offer a sarcastic sentence, not meant to be taken literally: “I give up!”
Polley did, however, receive an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. In accepting her Oscar, she attacked the sexism that social workers validate hourly as again and again we see women (including ourselves) condescended to, demeaned as lacking intelligence, viewed as “less than,” and sexually objectified. “First of all, I just want to thank the Academy for not being mortally offended by the words ‘women’ and ‘talking’ put so close together like that.”
She continued, using a description that crystalizes practitioner goals when working with families and groups, and our rock-solid, unshakable beliefs in the values of democracy, saying, “Miriam Toews wrote an essential novel about a radical democracy in which people who don’t agree on every single issue managed to sit together in a room and carve out a way forward together free of violence.” The following sentence captured one of the highest values of social work. “They do so not just by talking, but also listening” (italics mine).
If the room Polley described were our offices, the women our clients, and we the listeners, without opportunities to reflect and process their relentless trauma, we would be on a sure road to burnout. Under these circumstances, self-awareness and reflection offer both the surest prevention and antidote, so I offer the following questions for personal exploration (perhaps journaling).
- In meeting clients reminiscent of those in the film, do I become overwhelmed by compassion and take on their trauma? If so, what is keeping me from adopting necessary boundaries?
- Who of the characters is familiar to me? In what ways?
- As I watch this film, does my mind wander to any personal abuse in my life or the lives of loved ones?
- Have I ever experienced the rage seen in this film? If so, under what circumstances?
- Have I ever experienced the guilt seen in this film? If so, under what circumstances?
- Have I ever experienced the maturity and resolve seen in this film? If so, under what circumstances? If not, what were the deterrents?
Now to a detailed film description, where framing will continue, but there will be no spoilers:
Sarah Polley, whose mom went from actor to casting director, was an extremely successful child actor (beginning at age 4 or 5) in her native Canada, with later starring roles. However, she became overwhelmed by the intrusions of fame, was raped in her teens, and transitioned from acting to writing and directing in 1999. Speaking honestly and honorably together, or its lack, was the concentration of her first documentary, Stories We Tell, in which she disclosed that the man who raised her as his daughter was not her biological father. Women Talking continues her devotion to the importance of honest, respectful sharing of truths.
Between 2002 and 2009, more than 130 Bolivian Mennonite women, living in an ultra-conservative community in Manitoba Colony, were repeatedly drugged and raped by using a sedative spray meant for animals. These horrors were brought to life in Miriam Toew’s novel, and, although the film does not reveal a location, are given further dimension in Polley’s film. Both film and book offer an “imagined response” to these violations.
Polley’s film opens in 2010 on an unnamed, isolated, religious, cult-like Mennonite farm, where children run and play, and beautiful young girls braid each other’s hair. And, also, where fathers rape their wives, daughters, and neighbors—and brothers rape their sisters. When girls and women awaken from their drugged state, bloodied and in pain, they are told that a supernatural power has attacked them, or that their stories are the invention of “wild female imagination.” They are also told that either not offering forgiveness or any attempt to escape results in eternal damnation. The women are not taught to read or write, yet they quote knowingly from the Scriptures. Polley, an atheist, shows deep respect for the religious devotion of her characters, viewing their closely held beliefs as the underpinning of “a new colony” based on self and mutual respect, the foundation of love.
When a toddler is raped, the child’s mother attacks the rapist. He escapes, but when he is finally caught, he names other attackers from the colony. All are arrested.
The film opens when the remaining men have left the colony for two days to oversee bail. During this brief respite, with outside authorities involved, the women rapidly organize and weigh three options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the colony. When the first option is rejected and the latter two receive a tie vote, three representative families are selected to meet in a hayloft to decide their fate.
The women’s deliberations focus on the nature of men; the responsibility within their colony of the men who did not abuse, yet did not stop it; the nature of forgiveness and when it is offered; the guilt and shame resulting from violations passed on to daughters and granddaughters. One issue I wish had been debated is how the women’s deep belief in God and the scriptures contradicts the palpable violence continuously endured, forgiven, and passed down. Of course, this is an issue those of us who work with abuse survivors constantly face with them. The issues of where to go and care for themselves in safety (if they leave) are also ones social workers know well.
The women’s deliberations reveal their deep vulnerabilities, as well as vast wisdom, acquired through hard labor, tireless responsibilities, and endless pain. However, in my first viewings of this film, I found it extremely hard to keep them straight. Sadly, I cannot do justice to them each. But following are key portrayals.
We meet Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, also a film producer). The brilliant actor portrays a woman knifed on her face, clinging to traditionalism because she fears rejection from the outside world. We see the deliberations of the furious Mariche (Jessie Buckley), mired in a violent marriage, displacing her rage on others; Ona (Rooney Mara), pregnant following a rape; and Salome, (The Crown’s Claire Foy), insistent on fighting the violators, even killing them, to protect her daughter, Autje (Kate Hallett). Agata (Judith Ivey), one of the two matriarchs of the community, mother to Salome and Ona, holds firmly to the principles of the colony’s faith.
The second matriarch leader introduced is Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mariche’s mother, whose patience covers vast suffering and guilt revealed late in the film. We also meet Melvin (August Winter), a transgender male who after being raped will speak only to children and is assigned to watch the children and warn the women of any dangers. The only other male present in negotiations is August (Ben Whishaw), who has been banned by colony leaders, but is brought back to teach the children. August is a necessary deliberation scribe, as the women are basically illiterate. He also becomes their designated historian, instructed to leave a record of their remarkable negotiations on the walls of their meeting place, where at film’s end hayloft has become both refuge and sanctuary.
Women Talking brings to mind the following questions for discussion among social workers, perhaps in a group training setting, after viewing the film.
- Who are or have been my clients whose surroundings and inner world (anger, guilt, strengths, etc.) remind me of what I see on the screen?
- Who in this unnamed community is responsible for the brutality revealed?
- What could have been done within the community to put an end to the heinous suffering?
- What in the film is reminiscent of today’s world?
In Miriam Toew’s novel, the story of women realizing their capacities and strengths is narrated by the scribe, August. It would be a spoiler to tell you who narrates in the movie. But in her final words, there is an eternal promise abused mothers offer the daughters they yearn for, welcome, love, and do all they can to protect, despite all: “Your story will be different from ours.”
Sarah Polley’s Women Talking confronts this promise through bold sensitive genius. Her work is an artistic masterpiece, one where each member of the ensemble cast is passionate about their participation. I offer each the finest compliment I can offer anyone: They are “natural social workers.”
SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD, whose private and pro bono clinical social work practice is in Philadelphia, is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. She is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2004) and the Social Worker of the Year (2018) from the Pennsylvania chapter of NASW, and the 2013 NASW Media Award for Best Article. In 2018, she was one of five graduates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice selected for the school’s inaugural Hall of Fame. SaraKay is the author of Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work (2nd Edition).