Embracing women’s stories and forming for a healthier, holier future

Written by Adam Kline

Women Talking (released in 2022, and now available on Prime Video) is an exquisite film that tells the story of a group of victimized Mennonite women gathering together in a hay loft to decide whether to leave their community or stay and try to end the ongoing violence.

The story broke my heart. The staging broke my brain. The imagination strengthened my faith. It’s a perfect example of how a story staged in a single setting can ignite and inspire a whole world of possibilities.

It’s also a sobering reminder of something I’ve heard said: if the gospel cannot be preached at the edge of a mass grave, then it is no gospel at all.

The same can be said for women who have been raped and abused. If their faith cannot be shared in the midst of their suffering, then it is no faith at all. The film is adapted from a novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews—inspired by the horrific true events of a series of attacks on women and children in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia.

In the context of the story, the women’s faith is the foundation of their insistence that something better is possible. That a safer, healthier, and holier way can be forged, together. As one character states part way through the film, “Perhaps it would be useful to talk, not only about what we want to destroy, but also about what we want to build.”

In spite of their circumstances, in spite of their suffering and the disparity they were raised with, these grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters know that something must be done.

The film opens with a vote. The women, who can neither read or write, draw three images on a large sheet of paper—indicating either the decision to leave, to stay and fight, or stay and forgive. The women of the community line up and take turns, marking an “X” beneath the image that reflects their vote.

The images and options are striking because they put faith at the centre of the discussion: Does forgiveness require us to stay and suffer further? Can we not forgive and also leave the situation? Does our faith permit us to fight, and if so, in what way?

As the women raise these questions and discuss their implications, there are moments of rage and sadness, disagreement, and feuding. There are also moments of levity, humour, and even music. At one point, the women begin to sing the hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

It’s a beautiful testament to their commitment to something greater, something good, and their commitment to one another, despite their differences.

In an interview on the Face2Face podcast, the film’s director, the beloved Canadian actor and writer Sarah Polley, was asked about encountering hope in such unexpected circumstances and why it was important to tell the story in this way. She responded:

“These women have a very deep faith, and instead of sitting back and judging that faith, I was really interested in trying to get close to it…because ultimately, I think, that’s the anchor they have as a community to be able to have this wild imagining of what a world without this kind of harm would look like and how to build it.”

A story like this is often overlooked in Christian circles because it’s too dark or too damning. But nothing could be further from the truth. Like the women who were the first to witness Christ’s resurrection, throughout history, women’s invaluable voices have often been ignored and their status lowered within the larger story. But where would we be without them?

We need more stories like this. We need to listen to the testimonies of our sisters, mothers, and grandmothers and allow their discernment and deliberation to guide and teach us. We need to be confronted by the truth. We need to right our wrongs. We need to forgive and forge a better future. We need to know what we’ve been missing, and how together, our collective imagination and faith might flourish—creating a healthier and holier space for all of us.

Adam Kline is an intercultural engagement team lead and storyteller living in Belleville, Ont. Read more columns from “Behind the screens.”