By Isabel Pulgarin
The upcoming movie, Women Talking, based on the novel by Miriam Toews, showcases moving conversations between victims of sexual assault, stemming from real life events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia from the summer of 2009. The highly anticipated film set to premiere Dec. 7 is a remarkably feminist, post-#MeToo tribute to victims of rape and sexual assault.
Households of Manitoba, Bolivia held three slumbering generations of Mennonite women the summer of 2009. But, one household, one fateful night, almost fell victim to invaders who had a long history of attacking sleeping women.
One night in June, 13 years ago, two men were caught trying to enter a home to incapacitate sleeping women and their daughters to take advantage of them.
The captured men confessed the names of other men who have been breaking and entering, spraying anesthetics to knock occupants out, and rape grandmothers, young mothers, and young girls for four years. Children as young as three years old were victims of sexual assault.
Officially from the 2011 trial of the eight men arrested minus one who escaped custody, 151 women and girls were raped and sexual assaulted—at least one woman or girl from more than half of all Manitoba Colony households.
These victims woke up with bodily trauma with blood and bruises on them, pointing to sexual assault. Drowsy and unable to move, these women and girls woke with a gut feeling something terrible happened to them in their bed they could not remember. But with the Christian patriarch power over them, fear of not being welcomed into their heaven once they died, possibly being excommunicated, and risking never being married off or having children since your virginity was take, there were more dangerous cons than there were pros to speaking out plaguing the victims.
The film takes place in the time where all the men are in town supporting and trying to post bail for the rapists. Women Talking is already nominated by the Gotham Awards for best screenplay with outstanding supporting performances by Jessie Buckley, one of the mothers, and Drew Whishaw, who plays the male ally who—like the novel—accounts for the minutes of the fictional meetings. The plot’s fictional response to the community’s serial mass rape follows the ladies in their debate on the tough decision on whether to leave for the sake of their children or stay to forgive the men and avoid the wrath of God if they fight and make it to heaven.
Who are the Mennonites of Bolivia?
This colony is made up of descendants of 16th century Anabaptist-Europeans from the Protestant church. The religious group is named after Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who led the conservative Christian movement. Mennonite families began migrating to Latin America and Canada with a refusal to conform its modernizing society.
They define themselves along self-discipline with a “simple life” as farmers without technology. They pride themselves in pacifism, a belief that any violence is unjustifiable, and all conflicts should be handled peacefully.
Most of the Mennonites in Bolivia are Russian of Fresian, Flemish, and North German descent and are considered the most traditional and conservative denominations in South America. The women only speak the dialect of Low German called Plautdietsch, while the men also speak Spanish and English as they were the ones who go out in the world to provide for their families. They were welcomed and granted privileges of religious freedom, their own private schools, and exception from military service in the 1930s.
And all this considered, the colonies are mostly self-policed so when it came to these heinous crimes, the police only get involved once other men brought the rapists into the town of Cotoca for the men’s protection from relatives of the victims.
For this devoutly religious community, their demons were to blame for all evils that occurred, especially that rape.
“For a while, the residents of Manitoba Colony thought demons were raping the town's women. There was no other explanation. No way of explaining how a woman could wake up with blood and semen stains smeared across her sheets and no memory of the previous night. No way of explaining how another went to sleep clothed, only to wake up naked and covered by dirty fingerprints all over her body. No way to understand how another could dream of a man forcing himself onto her in a field—and then wake up the next morning with grass in her hair,” wrote VICE reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky after his 2013 investigation in the colony of Manitoba.
Imagine: in par with your religion and what you grew up deeply believing in, in order for you to be accepted into the kingdom of heaven and have peace in your afterlife — not to mention be able to stay in the same town you’ve built a family in and/or lived most of your life in — you have to forgive the men who committed these crimes against your humanity and forget for the sake of your soul and those of your family and future husband. That’s what these women lived for under this religion - to love their husbands and produce offspring to keep the family and religion going for generations and generations.
Sadly, if you’re seen as impure, whether it’s from your own conviction or you were raped by a relative or other man in town, you will be excommunicated and removed from the town, a town in a country where you don’t know because you can’t read a map, let alone any of the words on it, and you can’t navigate finding help because you only speak a rare German dialect, exclusive to your people.
Would you forgive and forget, stay and fight, or run for your life?
The powerful film was written and directed by Sarah Polley, while touching on serious, triggering ideas.
One of her greatest takeaways at a Nov. 7 screening of the movie in Miami, Andrea Vasquez, a marketing professional for Amazon Web Services, said, “When I saw them actually crack up at certain scenarios that were going on—that’s how they’re coping… That sisterhood, having each other’s back, everyone feeling the same anger and trying to [figure out] ‘Are we going to kill
these guys?’ or ‘What are we going to do?’ And really sitting with those thoughts all together and bringing each other back, like ‘This is why we forgive…’”