Let the women talk now

The vastness of the American landscape can be deceptive, its offer of freedom easily flipping into its opposite. Isolation sometimes brings the worst human abysses to light; the pandemic has also shown once again that it has something deeply repressive about it. Sarah Polley and her cameraman Luc Montpellier contrast the landscape shots of fields and meadows, of children playing carefree in nature, with a shelter. A group of women from a rural Mennonite community meet in the barn to make a decision: should they leave behind their husbands and sons – and with them their intimate lives of housework and experiences of sexual violence?

Sacred spaces for arguing

The answer to this question seems clear. But how nuanced does the Canadian director weigh up the different positions of the women in her third feature film “The Debate”, how cleverly she understands it by just listening – “Women Talking” is the name of Polley’s film, almost laconically, in the original – and the interaction of the women (and the camera with them) creates an almost sacred space in which the words resonate, opens the dusty haystack, through whose windows and cracks daylight breaks in, into the world. “We wanted the barn to look like a cathedral,” says Polley in an interview in Berlin. “The light has a quality as if it were shining through a church window. I knew from the start that this story had to be told epicly.”

Basically, the constellation of the film, in which Ben Whishaw plays the only male role, is epic. August is supposed to moderate the “debate”, he writes the arguments for “doing nothing”, “stay and fight” and “go away” on a blackboard. Above all, he listens to the women just as patiently as the audience. “Hoping in the unknown is good. It’s better than hating the familiar,” says Ono, played by Rooney Mara, in an attempt to encourage the frightened women to take their fate into their own hands.

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The term epic can be coined to refer to various aspects of The Pronunciation. First of all the incredible cast, of course, spanning three generations of performers: a grumpy Frances McDormand, who also produced, and the gorgeous Judith Ivey in the role of Elder Agata; Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and especially Jessie Buckley as Mariche, who is adamant about staying in the colony. Polley has also found two outstanding young actresses in Michelle McLeod and Kate Hallett.

The story of a departure

“The Pronunciation” not only feels big, it looks big too. Polley shot her chamber play in the historic 1:2.76 Scope format reserved for sandal films like Ben Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told in the 1960s. The Canadian director and writer understands the breadth of perspective, even in a closed space, as integral to her story, which is about departure. “The best thing about widescreen is that even with close-ups, we can see two or three people in the frame. That way the women always stay connected.”

Polley prefaced her film with the subtitle “An Act of Female Imagination”. The description comes from Miriam Toews’ novel, which is based on a true case of structural sexual violence in a Mennonite community in the 2010s. The film is such an act, and with its (almost) all-female cast in 2023, it is worrying that it still seems like a statement; and not like the new normal.

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Oscars again without a director

When asked about it, Polley nods gravely. A week before the interview, the Oscar nominations were announced in Los Angeles. Sarah Polley is nominated for her screenplay, but not as a director – although “The Debate” is one of the ten nominees for best picture. Taking to social media, she has pointed out how many women directors have been ignored by the Academy this year.

women-talking1/alternates/FREE_620/women-talking.jpeg 620w,https://www.tagesspiegel.de/images/women-talking1/alternates/FREE_1240/women-talking.jpeg 1240w" sizes="(min-width: 62.5em) calc(1000px - 1px*2 - 120px - 200px - 30px*2),(min-width: 48em) calc(100vw - 85px*2 - 15px*2),calc(100vw - 10px*2)" width="620" height="413">women-talking1/alternates/FREE_SMALL_340/women-talking.jpeg 340w,https://www.tagesspiegel.de/images/women-talking1/alternates/FREE_SMALL_680/women-talking.jpeg 680w,https://www.tagesspiegel.de/images/women-talking1/alternates/FREE_SMALL_1020/women-talking.jpeg 1020w" sizes="calc(100vw - 10px*2)" width="620" height="413">Ona (Rooney Mara, left to right), Salome (Claire Foy), Agata (Judith Ivey), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mejal (Michelle McLeod) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) vote in a barn.
Ona (Rooney Mara, left to right), Salome (Claire Foy), Agata (Judith Ivey), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mejal (Michelle McLeod) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) vote in a barn.
© Michael Gibson / MICHAEL GIBSON

The Canadian has not missed Hollywood for a long time. The Pronunciation is only Polley’s fourth directorial effort, but it’s already a comeback of sorts: it’s been ten years since her documentary, Stories We Tell, in which she explores her fascinating family history. At 44, you could almost call her a veteran.

At the age of four, Sarah Polley made her debut in the Disney film If Dreams Were True. The leading role in the series “Ramona” made her a child star in her home country at the age of eight. Film roles followed in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), David Cronenberg (eXistenZ) and Zack Snyder’s zombie film Dawn of the Dead. She immediately established herself as one of Hollywood’s most promising young voices with her directorial debut, By Her Side (starring Julie Christie as a woman with dementia) in 2006.

Ono (Rooney Mara) prefers an uncertain future to violence in the colony.
Ono (Rooney Mara) prefers an uncertain future to violence in the colony.
© Michael Gibson / MICHAEL GIBSON

If you ask Sarah Polley whether she still recognizes the film industry after her ten-year break, she briefly weighs it up. She doesn’t want to deny that a lot has changed for the better for women in Hollywood. “But misogyny still lurks in every work process. We have a long way to go.” After the Weinstein revelations in 2017, she spoke in the “New York Times” with a well-regarded opinion piece in the MeToo debate.

They hope, Polley wrote, that after a short discussion the talks will not immediately fall silent again. The designation noisy sisterhoodwhich she chose in this context (then referring to the “disturbing” voices of the women) now has a completely different meaning in “The Debate”.

We are just beginning to develop a language for abuse experiences.

Sarah Polley, director

“When I read Miriam Toews’s novel, I felt for the first time that I wanted to do a movie again,” Polley recalls. The fact that producer Dede Gardner (“She Said” by Maria Schrader) and Frances McDormand asked for the film rights on the same day was purely coincidental; that both thought of Polley as a director, a more than fortunate coincidence.

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Polley describes the experience on set as eye-opening: there was a lot of talking and listening, a therapist was present every day, and the tone was one of consideration and respect. (In her current collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger, Polley calls the working conditions at Munchausen a “traumatizing experience.”) “We were a large, egoless collective. Everyone on set shared their experiences, including male crew members who have experienced abuse themselves. We are just beginning to develop a language for these experiences. Being able to call a spade a spade is incredibly helpful.”

Talking, yelling at each other, listening, crying together, enduring the pain together: Polleys noisy sisterhood is an impressive community of destiny that would hardly have been seen in cinemas just a few years ago. “We were exploited like animals, maybe it’s time we fought back like animals,” Agata says to the other women at one point in the film.

Talking is a therapeutic process in The Debate, but Polley stresses the importance of listening to women like Mariche, who votes to stay, too. “Today we almost forgot that talking to each other is a basis of democracy,” says Polley. What’s more, talking to each other is above all an expression of empathy. A utopia emerges from a mere act of female imagination in “The Debate”.

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