Why ‘Women Talking’ Director Sarah Polley Opted Not to Portray Sexual Violence Onscreen

Women Talking premiered at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles on Thursday night, following a film festival run earlier this year. 

Based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, the film follows eight women living in an isolated religious colony as they struggle to reconcile their faith after a series of sexual assaults. The story is inspired by a real-life incident, in which women were drugged and raped in their sleep in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia for four years. 

While the film deals with the trauma of sexual violence, the audience never actually sees the violence occur onscreen — an intentional filmmaking decision by director and screenwriter Sarah Polley to keep the story focused on the women. 

“I have rarely found that sexual assault captured on film has been additive or necessary to a film,” Polley told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet. “I think in the case of this film, the important thing was the impact that those assaults had on these women, how they process it, how they move through it, how they move out of harm’s way — not the assaults themselves.”

“I felt there was probably not a way to do that without it being gratuitous and unnecessary, and given that that’s probably traumatic for some people to watch, you have to have a really good reason to show it,” the director added. “I just thought it was so much more important to talk about that moment after the assaults when there’s chaos in the brain, and the conversation that happens amongst these women about how to move away from the circumstances.”

The film also had an on-set clinical psychologist Dr. Lori Haskell, who specializes in trauma after sexual violence. Dr. Haskell was there for the cast and crew to work through difficult moments, in addition to serving as a research resource for how the brain’s chemistry is altered after a sexual assault. 

“It was really important for me to know that everyone knew they could move away at any moment, that we could take a break, that we could go get air, that we wouldn’t have a ticking clock on those moments where people just needed to recover for a minute,” Polley said. 

“It created such a loving and safe environment, and really set the bar for me as a young actor to know what should be the standard of every work environment,” noted actress Shayla Brown. “Sarah Polley made us feel so safe and made us, especially the young actors, understand that the perfect shot was not worth our mental health.”

And when the cameras weren’t rolling, the cast and crew fostered a close bond after several months of shooting in Toronto. 

“Getting the women to stop talking so we could do the movie called Women Talking was quite a challenge,” Sheila McCarthy laughed. “We were together all the time for months. It was like theater. You don’t get that in movies very often.”

Rooney Mara and Claire Foy


Produced by Frances McDormand (who also appears in the film), Women Talking stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw and Judith Ivey. With such a timely and critical subject matter, Foy hopes that the film will inspire more conversations to be had, long after audiences have finished watching. 

“What I’ve noticed in the screenings that we’ve had is that it really is a conversation that continues after people have seen it,” Foy said. “I really hope that people see it in a group, they see it with their friends, they bring the movie to people who they think should see it [or want to see it anyway,] but also people who need to see it for educational purposes. I really think I’ve never been part of anything which is so important to society in a way. It really gives me hope about what films can do.” 

Women Talking hits theaters Dec. 2. 

Judith Ivey and Frances McDormand attend the Los Angeles Premiere of

Judith Ivey and Frances McDormand


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