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Director Sarah Polley on the significance of her new film 'Women Talking'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A new film is getting Oscar buzz for its standout acting performances and unusually deep exploration of sexual violence. The film opens nationwide tomorrow.

Jeffrey Brown talks to Sarah Polley, director of "Women Talking," for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Claire Foy, Actress: We know that we are bruised and infected and pregnant and terrified and insane. And some of us are dead.

Jeffrey Brown: A series of assaults has taken place in a conservative Mennonite community, far removed from modern life, and the women of the colony, realizing the perpetrators or their own menfolk, must vote, do nothing, stay in fight, or leave.

FRANCES MCDORMAND, Actress: It is a part of our faith to forgive. We will be excommunicated, forced to leave the colony in disgrace if we do not forgive these men. And if we are excommunicated, we forfeit our place in heaven.

Jeffrey Brown: The film "Women Talking" takes us into a conversation in which, says director Sarah Polley, the stakes couldn't be higher.

Sarah Polley, Director: Questions around faith and forgiveness and democracy and individual guilt vs. systemic injustice, and how do we heal, and how do we move together in community, and how do we sit with people who don't agree with us on every single issue and come to kind of some kind of consensus to move forward and out of harm?

And the idea of getting the best cast I possibly could in a room together to have this conversation was so exciting to me.

Rooney Mara, Actress: Is forgiveness that's forced upon us true forgiveness?

Jeffrey Brown: What a conversation, and what a cast, including Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Judith Ivey.

Judith Ivey, Actress: Isn't it interesting that the one and only request we women would have of the men would be for them to leave?

Jeffrey Brown: The film is based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, which itself reimagined real events that occurred in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia earlier this century.

Sarah Polley: Kind of amazing to see the film have this kind of life in so many places, because you don't know. You never know when you make a film if it's going to connect.

Jeffrey Brown: In New York recently, Polley spoke of how a story of women outside contemporary life...

Actress: It was all waiting to happen before it happened.

Jeffrey Brown: ... members of a deeply hierarchical faith community in which girls and women are kept illiterate and under the authority of men, could resonate so strongly for her and others today.

Sarah Polley: One of the resonant parts for me was that -- the power of language, the power of having words for something that's previously been unspoken, the power of having a conversation come in to the culture that hasn't been part of it, that's what these women are doing.

And I think, most importantly, what I loved about the conversation this film is it wasn't just about the harms that had been done. It was about, how do we find a way forward? How do we build a better world? What do we want that to look like?

Jeffrey Brown: Even though, again, it's in such an other world, right?

Sarah Polley: The film is told in the realm of a fable. So there's something of an allegory about it. There's something surreal and a heightened reality.

Jeffrey Brown: You wanted to take it out of specific place and time?

Sarah Polley: This is not limited to women in this particular sect. I mean, certainly, there's an extremity and a horror that happened in this community, that it's easier for that to happen in an isolated community where there's no contact with the outside world and where there's such a hierarchical power structure.

But I also just didn't want to give people permission to say, this -- these are only issues that people are dealing with in these kinds of communities, because, of course, we're dealing with them every day in our own.

In Montreal, father used to take me all the time.

Jeffrey Brown: Polley herself, now 44, has been in the film world since she was a child star in Canada.

Sarah Polley: You're mistaking me for someone with potential.

Jeffrey Brown: She appeared in numerous films before turning to directing in her late 20s with her feature debut, "Away From Her" based on a short story by Nobel Prize-winning writer Alice Munro, about a woman institutionalized with Alzheimer's.

Speaker: Michael was a private person, and Diane was not a private person.

Jeffrey Brown: The much-acclaimed documentary "Stories We Tell" examined Polley's own family history and the different ways lives can be understood and seen.

Last year, she published a memoir titled "Run Towards the Danger" that candidly explored some of the trauma she experienced along the way, and how she did or did not respond to them, including a sexual assault as a teenager which came out much later amid a highly publicized court case, and what she saw is abusive treatment she experienced as a child and teen on film sets, being put in emotionally and physically perilous situations.

Sarah Polley: Maybe on this one.

Jeffrey Brown: Polley the director has prioritized the workplace aspect of film production.

Sarah Polley: I kind of have a policy that it is your responsibility as a filmmaker to create a healthy working environment. And I think that kind of gets underplayed in the job description, so...

Jeffrey Brown: Underplayed because people don't think of it on a Hollywood set or film set?

Sarah Polley: I think people just expect filmmakers to be these wild, creative, imaginative geniuses, and it's irresponsibility or spontaneity or madness is part of the job description, maybe a symptom of a good filmmaker.

And I have found that better work is done on sets where attention is paid to those basic principles of a decent place for people to work, and the hours not being crushingly long, and people's emotional and physical well-being prioritized.

Jeffrey Brown: On the set of "Women Talking," that meant having a therapist, Laurie Haskell, on hand for the most emotional scenes, including one in which the character played by Claire Foy finally explodes, exhorting her companions to leave the colony now to protect their children.

Claire Foy: I will destroy any living thing that harms my child.

Sarah Polley: Laurie turned to me and said: "This is going to be my busiest day."

And I said: "Why? We have done all of these things that seem to be more traumatic than this."

And she said: "Because every person in this room right now on the crew and the cast who didn't have a parent to protect them is going to hear what it sounds like if they did. Like, what does it sound like? What are the words you would have wanted to hear your parents say?"

Jeffrey Brown: The therapist knew right away?

Sarah Polley: Just knew right away. And, sure enough, it was absolutely her busiest day. She had a lineup.

Claire Foy: I want to stay and fight too.

Jeffrey Brown: Ultimately, Polley wants to make clear, this is an empowering film, women talking not only of violence and danger, but how they can change their lives and those of their children.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Actress: We will have to ask ourselves who we are.

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