Interview: Acclaimed director Sarah Polley returns after long absence with ‘Women Talking’ – Houston Chronicle | Episode Movies

Judith Ivey as Agata and Claire Foy as Salome in Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking

Photo: Michael Gibson/Orion Publication by L/Michael Gibson

Sarah Polley’s bold new film Women Talking chronicles an unusual negotiation. The arguments unfold in a large barn; the time could be this century or almost any period before it. The stakes are high: should a close-knit but quarrelsome group of Mennonite women flee their colony and the rapists it harbors, or stay and fight?

Based on a novel by Miriam Toews that was loosely based on a series of real life events that took place from 2005 to 2009, the story haunted Polley until she felt compelled to bring it to screen. (“Women Talking” will be screened November 13 at 3 p.m. at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, which runs November 10-17.)

“It raised so many questions for me, so many big philosophical questions,” Polley said in a phone interview. “Not just about the obvious issues, but about belief, forgiveness, guilt, and power systems. So many difficult, nuanced questions that I just wanted to delve deeper into. I just walked around thinking about it all the time.”

The women of “Women Talk” have a lot to talk about. They belong to a very closed community; for many of them it is all they know. It is inseparable from their belief and conception of God. They don’t really know what’s out there on the other side of their colony. how will they go when will they leave Should they go? But they are not a monolithic group, despite what they share, and their discussion heats up as they circle the big questions they face.

“They’re trying to unravel and analyze what their beliefs are and what is good in their beliefs and what they want to stay true to and move away from structures and hierarchies that have been built up around their beliefs,” says Polley. “It can be really difficult. Ultimately, I think that the women in the film are not giving up their faith, but are trying to approach it by redesigning what it looks like in terms of how it will be realized in the society they want to live in. “

For producer Dede Gardner (“Moonlight,” “12 Years a Slave”), Polley was the perfect filmmaker for the project.

“Sarah brought precision, tremendous care and a cosmic work ethic,” she said via email. “Essentially, she brought with her a wild, feminine imagination.”

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

When: 10th-17th November

Where: Various venues including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the DeLuxe Theater; Asia Society Texas and more.


The cinema missed Polley’s extremely intelligent voice. She hasn’t made a feature film since her searing 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell, in which she turned the camera on her own mysterious family history. Her absence can be attributed to happy reasons – she had three kids and “I wanted to hang out with them” – and terrifying ones.

In 2015, she was hit in the head by a falling fire extinguisher at a swimming pool near her home in Toronto. The symptoms of her concussion lasted for years. “I didn’t think I would ever do a movie again,” she says. She finally found a specialist in Pittsburgh, and “he had me better in six weeks, like back 100 percent. It was pretty incredible.” (You can read more about Polley’s ordeal and recovery in her book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations With a Body of Memory, published earlier this year.)

Her comeback film, with a cast that includes Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey and Jessie Buckley, has an element of timeliness as it deals with sexual assault and reparation for its victims. But it also feels out of time and very specific in the story it tells. For Polley, that was a big part of the attraction.

“Lately there’s been so much talk about gender-based violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault,” she says. “I think what excited me about this book is that it goes beyond the issues I discussed. It got into the really tricky, sometimes uncomfortable area of ​​talking about things like guilt and what it means in a society so structured. To me, this film is a fable that reflects a lot of what we have been dealing with, or have tried to deal with, over the past few years.”

Chris Vognar is a Houston-based author.

  • Chris Vognar

    Chris Vognar is a reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

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